Esther is the first of Handel's oratorios by a good many years, written when he was 33 and enjoying the patronage of the Duke of Chandos. When he later became his own impresario and was running into trouble as a composer and producer of Italian operas he turned to oratorio as a strategic alternative, but at this early date his concern was to deliver staged entertainments for the Duke, and Esther, contemporary with the work that later gained the title Acis and Galatea, seems to have been just an unusually serious specimen of its type.
As often with Handel, there is no fully official version of the score, and this particular score may not even be fully complete from any point of view. The libretto seems to have been the work of someone in the frivolously named association of big literary figures called the Scriblerus Club, perhaps Dr John Arbuthnot, dedicatee of Pope's great poetic Epistle, but Pope himself may have had a hand in it too. As we have it here, the work breaks into two very asymmetrical parts. Scenes 1 and 2 start with a recitative lasting only seconds from Habdonah followed by a longer one in which Haman announces his onslaught on the Israelites, and from there on feature only anonymous participants. Esther herself and the other named characters make their appearance first in scene 4, but the change of tone occurs in scene 3. At this point the music gains gravity first in the chorus Ye sons of Israel with its extraordinary modulations and then in the striking aria O Jordan, Jordan. I myself feel that this weightier tone is maintained to the end, whether or not the writer of the liner note is correct in saying that the long final chorus with solos is out of proportion to its context.
Throughout - in the first part as well as in scenes 3-6 - the instrumental writing is vivid and varied, with an extraordinary pizzicato accompaniment to Tune your harps and then an even more extraordinary obbligato from the harp itself at Praise the Lord. The harpist is no less than Jan Walters, but sometime I would like to see the score and check out what seem some odd rhythmic interactions here between her and the soloist Nancy Argenta. There are no fewer than ten vocal soloists in a work lasting a little over an hour and a quarter, and a very distinguished bunch they are. I was particularly pleased to find Michael Chance in the countertenor role of the Priest of the Israelites as I admire the strength of his tone, but there is no real weakness among them, unless Lynda Russell as Esther has a couple of very slightly awkward high notes in Flatt'ring tongue, which must be a little nerve-wracking to sing as she has to find her note for herself unaccompanied at the start and later at the reprise. You will see some big names among the instrumentalists too, with Crispian Steele-Perkins on the trumpet making a predictably fine contribution towards the end, and of course with Jan Walters in that marvellous harp part early on. The chorus gets some wonderful work to do, and rises to it fully. I really am unable to worry about the proportionateness of the final chorus when I hear that incomparable Handelian build of tone, sung by 18 singers and sounding as if there were 100.
There is a good liner note by Graydon Beeks Jr, not perhaps the last word in lucidity (neither is the plot of the libretto come to that) but worth re-reading. Harry Christophers himself contributes a short foreword largely concerned with the recording process and highlighting the contributions of Mark Brown and Mike Hatch, his long-time technical collaborators. I was interested to see also the name of Geoff Miles in a role described as `editor'. What responsibilities this involved is not stated and perhaps I ought to know without being told, but I know the work of Geoff Miles as recording engineer from elsewhere and it gave me confidence just to see that he is involved in the proceedings, and the technical work is predictably excellent.
My collection of Handel oratorios is now almost complete, and what a wonderful musical experience they are. Each is unique in its own way, but Esther is unique in some very special ways, and I suggest that you do not wait until you are my age to get to know it.