What a privilege as well as utter joy to be present for Esther from Solomon’s Knot

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Esther HWV50a (c.1718): Soloists, Baroque ensemble, Solomon’s Knot (artistic director: Jonathan Sells). Wigmore Hall, London, 27.5.2024. (AK)

The performers involved in Handel’s Esther at the Wigmore Hall © Solomon’s Knot

Clare Lloyd-Griffiths soprano (as Israelite boy)
Zoë Brookshaw soprano (as Esther)
James Hall alto (as Priest of the Israelites)
Kate Symonds-Joy alto (as Priest of the Israelites)
David de Winter tenor (as Habdonah, Officer, Second Israelite)
Joseph Doody tenor (as Mordecai)
Thomas Herford tenor (as First Israelite)
Xavier Hetherington tenor (as Ahasuerus)
Alex Ashworth bass (as Haman)
Jonathan Sells bass

Composed as a small-scale masque for the Duke of Chandos in c.1718, Handel’s Esther might have been intended to be performed only once for the Duke’s private entertainment at his country residence ‘Cannons’ (Stanmore, Middlesex). However, Esther outgrew the likely original intention. It was revised in 1720 (still for Cannons) and then, in 1732, Bernard Gates (Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal) presented performances of Esther with his boys for the Philharmonic Society.

Still in 1732, Handel was spurred on and made further revisions, adding extensions from some of his previous works. By this time, Handel might have had his Italian operatic soloists (such as Senestino and Maria Strada) in mind for the roles. Nevertheless, Esther was not regarded as an opera; with its English text it has created a new genre: the English oratorio.

The text of Esther is assumed to be based on Racine’s 1689 play of the same name. However, the biblical Book of Esther might also have been a possible source for Handel’s unknown librettist (or librettists). Either way, Jewish tradition retells the story every year at the Purim celebrations.

As told in The Book of Esther, Esther is a Jewish woman living in the Persian diaspora and, having found favour with the Persian king Ahasuerus, she becomes the queen. High-ranking Persian court official Haman wants to destroy all Jews in the Persian empire. However, Esther pleads with the king whose love for Esther leads to saving the Jews and destroying Haman.

Much as I may enjoy the fruits of Haman’s fall at Purim celebrations – including the delicious hamantaschen pastry and fun games – in our current times I feel uncomfortable with the biblical text as well as with some of the libretto. Glorious choruses celebrating destruction, on whichever side, sit uneasy with me. Interestingly, Handel might have been conflicted with his sympathies. For Haman’s final appearance (‘How art thou fall’n’) Handel provides a deeply moving aria. With the beautiful music given to him by Handel, bass Alex Ashworth was more dignified than vicious as Haman but his superb singing served us perfectly.

The delivery of Esther was a Solomon’s Knot masterclass in musicianship and scholarship, combined with meaningful dramaturgy and utmost beauty. Each of the ten singers and seventeen instrumentalists really listen to each other; they perform without a conductor, but – or perhaps because of it? – their ensemble work is immaculate and flawless. Clearly, they all know Handel’s score, not only their own parts. Nevertheless, as in all situations, it is the top which determines quality: artistic director (and ensemble member) Jonathan Sells’s achievement is a marvel to behold.

Each of the ten singers have solo parts but they also constitute the choir. They sing from memory throughout, although – unlike on operatic stages – they are involved during most of the performance. Their involvement even includes discretely moving chairs and music stands (for instrumentalists) at relevant points.

It is not easy to accommodate up to twenty-seven people on the small stage of the Wigmore Hall but Solomon’s Knot managed without any hindrance. It is true that for ‘Save us, O Lord’ (finale of Act II, Scene One) the chorus split and sang from the auditorium right next to each side of the stage, thus skilfully extending it. However, it is remarkable that the entire ensemble sounded unified although placed in some distance from each other and, as throughout, without a conductor.

As part of the musical dramaturgy, instrumental solos of whatever length were not only heard but also seen. For longer solos relevant instrumentalists came centre stage but adjustments were also made for shorter solos. For instance, during the Overture, oboist Daniel Lanthier stood front left on the stage, slightly covering lead violin George Clifford. However, while the lead violin repeated solo phrases of the oboe, the oboist stepped further to the side to make the violinist visible and more audible.

At times, instrumentalists also performed from memory. In ‘Tune your harps’ (Act I, Scene Two), tenor Thomas Herford and oboist Lanthier were centre stage, both performing from memory, their duet above the pizzicato accompaniment providing a beautiful musical dialogue. Virtuosity added to musicality was also in abundance: tenor Xavier Hetherington’s duo with lead violinist Clifford (‘How can I stay’, Act II, Scene Two) is just one example.

Although officially an oratorio, in this performance of Esther we had credible acting on the stage. All four main characters presented full dramatic delivery. Esther’s dress and hair broach were regal as well as tasteful; her voice of innocence chimed with Handel’s probable intentions (if, as assumed, the part was written for a boy soprano). The interaction between Esther (soprano Zoë Brookshaw) and Mordecai (tenor Joseph Doody) was dramatically fully plausible.

A nice touch was for King Ahasuerus (tenor Xavier Hetherington) to offer a chair to Esther and subsequently both were sitting together during his magical pianissimo return of the A section of his aria (‘O beauteous Queen’, Act II, Scene Two).

Each of the ten vocal soloists did more than justice to Handel. For me their most astonishing accomplishment was the dynamic and tonal range of their choral numbers and their crystal-clear polyphonic delivery. Their final number (consisting of eleven polyphonic lines: five choral and six orchestral) filled the Wigmore Hall with the most radiant ensemble imaginable, in spite of performing without any conductor. With Fruzsi Hara’s jubilant trumpet fanfare on the top of the mesmerising ensemble, we witnessed a triumph of knowledge, dedication, and beauty. It was a privilege as well as utter joy to be present.

Agnes Kory

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