Esther - First Reconstructable Hybrid SACD
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The Dunedin Consort's highly anticipated new recording of 'Esther - First Reconstructable Version (Cannons), 1720' is the third recording in its hugely successful Handel series. The Consort have set the bar high for this Handel performance with a Gramophone Award in 2007 for 'Messiah' and a BBC Radio 3 'Building a Library' First Choice accolade for 'Acis and Galatea'. For Esther, director John Butt has reunited his award-winning team of soloists (Susan Hamilton - Esther; Nicholas Mulroy - Mordecai; Matthew Brook - Haman; Thomas Hobbs - 1st Israelite) plus well-known guest soloists Robin Blaze - Priest, James Gilchrist - Habdonah / Assuerus and Electra Lochhead - Israelite Boy
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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.
The difference from Butt to Christophers is that Christophers uses a structure of six scenes while Butt uses a division into three acts. Both were used by Handel at various times. The sequence of numbers remains the same and the orchestration sounds similar (Christophers employs a theorbo). One chorus is different. Butt's orchestra and chorus are similar in numbers to that employed by the Duke of Chandos at Cannons about 1718/20. Christophers groups are about 50% larger.
The orchestras for both are excellent and the sound of both is good, with Linn having more "presence". The perspective in the Christophers is from the middle of the hall; with Butt you are sitting front row center (or maybe right on the stage.)
Both performances take about 100 minutes, with Christophers inserting a lovely Handel oboe concerto between two scenes for an additional six minutes.