Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Esther review – the first English Oratorio at St George’s, Hanover Square

14 March 2024

The 2024 London Handel Festival opens in suitably strong style.

St George's, Hanover Square

St George’s, Hanover Square (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Although Handel had already written Oratorios in Italy, and the precise origins of Esther HWV50a remain unclear, the piece still enjoys the label of the first English Oratorio. The story is based on the Old Testament book, with some elements coming from a Greek version in the Apocrypha. When the Persian king Ahasuerus’ first minister Haman declares a massacre on the Jews, Ahasuerus’ new queen Esther successfully petitions him to prevent it.

At least two versions were written between 1718 and 1720, before a further one was produced in 1732. The latter came about because Handel was seeking to turn a threat into an opportunity. When the 1720 version, which he had originally written for private performance, was presented without his permission, he advertised his own expanded and improved version, and it received a public performance within a fortnight. Even in this short time period he wrote eight new arias and choruses, while also augmenting the work with music he had composed for other pieces. In the majority of cases, the additional material would have been little known to the audience, although that is not the case with the two Coronation Anthems that it features, which were included because they were known crowd-pleasers. 

John Butt has suggested that Part I possesses the type of ‘pastoral entertainment’ that might be found in Acis & Galatea, Part II would seem reflective of the German Passion tradition, while Part III fully unleashes the large choral Oratorio, which was then to live on. However, the addition of such pieces as ‘My heart is inditing’ in Part I might be seen as disrupting the overall progression of the work, making it arguably less coherent than the first reconstructible version of 1720. Nevertheless, what it possibly loses in ‘neatness’, it more than makes up for in exuberance and visceral thrill. Although not all were new to the 1732 version, there was certainly great excitement on this occasion in hearing Lise Vandersmissen’s running attacks on the harp in ‘Praise the Lord with cheerful noise’; the horns in the chorus ‘He comes, he comes to end our woes’, and the prowess of the singers in the Oratorio’s several duets.

“…what it possibly loses in ‘neatness’, it more than makes up for in exuberance and visceral thrill”

This presentation by the London Handel Orchestra, led by Adrian Butterfield, and London Handel Singers opened the 2024 London Handel Festival. With over 60 performers, it was one of the largest performances to have ever taken place in St George’s, Hanover Square. Considering the consequently crowded nature of the chancel, the logistics were managed well as soloists could enter and exit by sliding down a choir stall that had been left empty, while a few sang from the pulpit on occasions.

The music making was of an extremely high standard as the playing was both smooth and precise, and the chorus offered a highly considered sound or the type of tour de force that the endings to Parts II and III invite. The soloists were particularly strong, with Nardus Williams in the title role exhibiting a clear, bright and extremely precise soprano. As the Israelite Woman, Rachel Redmond’s own soprano was highly sensitive, although its underlying security was the basis from which she could deliver some impressive coloratura. As Esther’s uncle Mordecai, Jess Dandy displayed an exceptionally rich and dark contralto, and a flexibility that was highly unusual given the nature of her voice. As Haman, Florian Störtz was possessed of a strong and assertive bass-baritone, while Tim Mead revealed a beautiful countertenor as Ahasuerus. In particular, his runs in the closing ‘The Lord our enemy has slain’ revealed such consistency and precision over a sustained period that they stood out as something special.

This is Laurence Cummings’ 25th and final year as Music Director of the London Handel Festival, and as well as conducting from the harpsichord, he also assumed the role of the First Israelite. Although the part consists entirely of recitative, he sang with a prowess that meant he was worthy of it on merit, and his diction was particularly accomplished.

• The 2024 London Handel Festival continues until 20 April. For details of all events and tickets, visit its website.

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