This recording is a triumph of both musicology and musicianship, a "first" reconstruction of Handel's "first" sacred oratorio in English and the "first" evidence that Handel had already evolved a distinctly English style almost as different from his Italian manner as Purcell was from Carissimi. There are a couple of previous recordings of Esther, conducted by Harry Christophers and Nick McGegan, but they bear almost no similarity to the version recorded here, for the simple reason that Handel drastically rewrote Esther for a later occasion. The first Esther was a "house" concert at Cannons, the estate of the Duke of Chandos. The libretto may have included contributions by Alexander Pope. It's the story, told twice in the Bible, of the genocide of Jews in Persia decreed by the villain Haman in the name of his King Assuerus. The King, however, hears the appeal of his newly beloved wife Esther, who is herself Jewish, and revokes the decree. In the end, Haman's treacherous intentions are exposed and the villain is sent off to execution. The story is presented in a series of vignettes, almost as tableaux vivantes, that would not have required much explicit narration for an audience deeply familiar with every chapter of the Bible. The political climate in Puritan England in 1720 would NOT have tolerated a more public production of a performance that combined secular music with sacred texts.
This first version of Esther was not entirely new. Much of the music was recycled from Handel's own setting of the Brockes Passion and from his English version of Acis and Galatea. Any listener who supposes that vocal music can be heard best by ignoring the text would do well to listen to Haman's final aria of lament, with its convincing affect of defiance and shame. The same musical notes were sung by Jesus in the Brockes Passion, with an utterly different emotional affect.
As in previous Dunedin performances, the impact of the "whole" is greater than that of the parts, even when the parts are very fine. Tenor James Gilchrist is elegantly suave as Kind Assuerus, bass Matthew Brook is grimly fierce as Haman, and the rest of the cast, though not quite as polished as those two, are still musically thrilling to hear. It's the chorus, nevertheless, that constituted the 'originality' of this work as first conceived; no chorus in any of Handel's Italian works played such a prominent role. The Dunedin Consort chorus consists of the five principals each doubled by another singer, comprising a vocal force grand enough to be impressive yet small and coherent enough to sound like human voices issuing from the speakers of your sound system. The orchestra, with full string sections plus two horns, trumpet, flute, two bassoons, and harp, supports the singers with a rich structure of sonorities.
Dunedin has already given us some extraordinary interpretations ...
Handel: Messiah (Dublin Version, 1742)
Byrd & Tallis: ...In Chains Of Gold...
J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor
George Frideric Handel: Acis and Galatea
... and others, every one of which is alive with musical insight and excitement.