Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Esther review – Solomon’s Knot provides a Bank Holiday treat at the Wigmore Hall

27 May 2024

An intelligent and effective presentation of Handel’s Oratorio.


Solomon’s Knot (Photo: Sam Smith)

Today Handel’s Esther HWV50a is acclaimed as the first English Oratorio, but chance played a part in securing it that title. At least two versions were written between 1718 and 1720 for the composer’s patron, the Duke of Chandos, with the first reconstructable version of 1720 being known as the ‘Cannons’ after his Edgware establishment. It was only intended for private performance at that venue, and so may never have been acknowledged as a seminal work were it not for an event that occurred in 1732. When in that year the 1720 version was presented without the composer’s permission, he advertised his own expanded and improved version, and it received a public performance within a fortnight. He wrote eight new arias and choruses, while also augmenting the work with music he had composed for other pieces, and the result was that the Oratorio’s profile was raised considerably.

The later version was presented at St George’s, Hanover Square in March as the opening concert in the 2024 London Handel Festival. While, however, the additions give the Oratorio a more visceral quality, the 1720 version feels neater and more coherent. It was this that Solomon’s Knot, with leader George Clifford, presented at Wigmore Hall on the final Bank Holiday Monday in May.

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. The story in the 1720 version is told across three Acts, with each Act also bearing three scenes that take us through a series of emotions. For example, Act I sees Haman triumphantly declare his evil intentions in the first scene, the Israelites celebrate Esther’s impending marriage in the second, and then despair as they learn of the ensuing massacre in the third. With the music matching the mood in each instance, the emotional colour wheel is constantly kept turning, and the changes in tone feel more natural than in the 1732 version. This is because the earlier version does not include such pieces as ‘My heart is inditing’, which although rousing when inserted into this Oratorio, do tend to disrupt the overall progression of the piece.

The presentation of the work on this occasion was immensely skilful as all of the soloists, who collectively formed the chorus, sang from memory throughout. They began the evening sitting in a semicircle, with the instrumentalists surrounding them, before standing for their solos. This felt like many contemporary opera productions where everyone occupies the stage as a default, before individuals rise to assume their roles. The singers stood one by one to support Haman’s violent proclamation in ‘Pluck root and branch from out the land’, and the act of them facing outwards from the semicircle in ‘Ye sons of Israel mourn’ made them look like a huddled group of people with a common purpose, rather than a rigid chorus. 

“The presentation of the work on this occasion was immensely skilful…”

The singers as a group vacated the stage for Act II, which worked well as this Act focuses on two ‘intimate’ encounters between Esther and her cousin Mordecai, and Esther and Ahasuerus. When the chorus first appeared in Act II for ‘Save us, O Lord’ it was at the front of the auditorium rather than on the stage, and they seemed to sneak on after Ahasuerus’ ‘How can I stay, when love invites’ in preparation for their ‘Virtue, truth and innocence’. Sometimes instrumentalists came centre stage for certain airs, so that in the Israelite Boy’s ‘Praise the Lord with cheerful noise’, soprano Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, harpist Aileen Henry and flautist Eva Caballero formed their own ‘mini-ensemble’. Such moves did more than simply provide visual interest. When oboist Daniel Lanthier walked into place for Haman’s ‘How art thou fall’n from thy height’, he eyed the condemned minister up in a disparaging manner. This made us feel that the oboe solo in the air did not merely reflect Haman’s sorrow, but also acted as a force against him.

The singing was strong across the board, although some soloists sang at notably different volumes to others, even accepting that when airs differ in nature the approach to them must also vary. This did not make the experience of hearing this Oratorio feel as coherent as it might have been, but it remained a minor problem as it only meant that some airs felt more impactful than others. When the soloists all sang together as the chorus the sound was, in contrast, well balanced. 

As Haman, Alex Ashworth asserted his rich bass-baritone to tremendous effect, so that his triumphant feeling ‘Pluck root and branch from out the land’ was quite overwhelming. He then presented a very different side to both his character and voice in ‘Turn not, O Queen, thy face away’ and ‘How art thou fall’n from thy height!’ when the minister faces death. In the title role, Zoë Brookshaw was possessed of a sweet soprano that possessed many nuances, and her upper register was particularly persuasive. Joseph Doody brought his ringing tenor to the role of Mordecai to create a highly engaging performance, while, as Ahasuerus, Xavier Hetherington revealed a tenor that felt just as expansive as it was firmly controlled.

For details of all of Solomon’s Knot’s recordings and future events visit its website. 

For details of all upcoming events at the Wigmore Hall visit its website.

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Esther review – Solomon’s Knot provides a Bank Holiday treat at the Wigmore Hall