Dunedin Consort, John Butt – Handel: Esther HWV 50a (2012) [LINN FLAC 24/96]

George Frideric Handel – Esther HWV 50a – Dunedin Consort, John Butt (2012)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/96kHz | Time – 01:39:38 minutes | 1,91 GB | Genre: Classical
Official Digital Download – Source: LINN | © LINN Records CKD 397
Recorded: July 2011 at Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland

Named the 11th Greatest Choir by Gramophone, the Dunedin Consort has established a reputation as the finest single-part period performance choir currently performing. The Dunedin Consort’s highly anticipated new recording of Esther is the third recording in its hugely successful Handel series. The Consort has 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, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook and Thomas Hobbs, plus well-known guest soloists Robin Blaze and James Gilchrist.

Somewhere between a masque and a fully fledged oratorio, Esther is a problematic work. John Arbuthnot’s adaptation of Racine’s play is ill-proportioned and leaves too many lacunae in the narrative, while Handel’s music, liberally pilfered from his Brockes-Passion, can mesh uncomfortably with character and action. After the intimacy of the first two acts, the brass-festooned splendour of the Jewish choruses in Act 3 seems to belong to a different work. In a way it does. Recent research by John Roberts has revealed that Esther went through two stages: a version of 1718, now lost, composed for the same chamber forces as Acis and Galatea; and an expanded revision of 1720, taking advantage of the newly enlarged forces at Cannons, the Duke of Chandos’s Palladian mansion in what was then rural Edgware. Whatever its faults as drama, Esther does contain some superb music, especially for the chorus and the characters who most fired Handel’s imagination: the Persian King Assuerus (married to the Jewess Esther) and his henchman Haman, intent on a Jewish massacre. For this recording John Butt has drawn on Roberts’s research to create an edition that differs in various minor ways from the versions recorded by Hogwood and Christophers. Inter alia, the action is, convincingly, divided into three acts rather than six scenes, and a flute, indicated in Handel’s autograph, is added to the harp obbligato in the aria ‘Praise the Lord’. As on his recordings of Acis and Galatea and Messiah, Butt’s direction combines spontaneous freshness with a care for expressive phrasing and precise colouring. The 11-strong chorus—the solo cast plus reinforcements—is vital and incisive, packing a fair punch even in the ceremonial final chorus.
Of the soloists, James Gilchrist’s characteristically intense, involved Assuerus and Matthew Brook’s baleful Haman are at least a match for their counterparts on the rival recordings. Indeed, Brook’s noble singing of Haman’s (futile) plea for mercy to Esther and his admonitory final aria give the oratorio’s villain a near-tragic grandeur. Thomas Hobbs sings ‘Tune your harps’ gracefully, abetted by the eloquent oboist Alexandra Bellamy; and the more robust, baritonal Nicholas Mulroy makes his mark in Mordecai’s solo. Robin Blaze, though, sounds off form as the Priest. More seriously, Susan Hamilton’s shallow, girlish tones are simply inadequate for Esther’s vehement riposte to Haman’s plea for his life. Any venom here comes courtesy of the strings. So much in Butt’s carefully prepared performance feels exactly right. Yet reservations about Blaze and, especially, Hamilton tip my preference towards either of the rival versions, with Christophers shading it for his superior choral singing and more even cast of soloists. –Gramophone

The sort of questions about texts and sources that keep scholars awake at night is probably Mogadon to the casual listener. But Handel’s Esther, his first ‘English’ oratorio, is a minefield into which John Butt enters brandishing a new edition.
Anyone already owning the Harry Christophers mid-1990s recording of the 1718 version with The Sixteen and the Symphony of Harmony and Invention needn’t necessarily be alarmed by the appearance of the usurper. The date has always been problematic. A viola interpolation aside, Butt’s three-act division can be achieved by pausing Christophers’s disc before ‘Jehovah, crowned with glory bright’, by losing an aria, and reversing the order of another and its recitative. The more crucial difference rests in the scale of the two recordings—Christophers’s chamber choir and slightly larger orchestral forces, versus the small-vocal-ensemble approach the Dunedins have championed in discs of Bach and Handel’s Acis and Galatea.
Paradoxically, a two-voices-to-a-part achieves more immediacy than a larger choir, coupled with a stylish and delightfully intimate band. Yet again, Butt demonstrates that less can be more. With soloists drawn from a distinguished consort including tenor James Gilchrist, countertenor Robin Blaze and soprano Susan Hamilton, the ear-catcher turns out to be bass-baritone Mathew Brook’s Hamam: a ‘bad guy’ whose Act III accompagnato would win over the most hardened of juries. Tenor Thomas Hobb’s mellifluous ‘Tune your harps’ plucks plaintive heartstrings too. –BBC Music Magazine

Tracklist:

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Esther HWV50a

1 Act 1 Overture Movement 1: Andante [1’58]
2 Act 1 Overture Movement 2: Larghetto [2’35]
3 Act 1 Overture Movement 3: Allegro [2’27]
4 Act 1 Scene 1 No 1, Recitative: ‘Tis greater far to spare, than to destroy (Habdonah/Haman) [0’41]
5 Act 1 Scene 1 No 2, Air: Pluck root and branch from out the land (Haman) [1’59]
6 Act 1 Scene 1 No 3, Recitative: Our souls with ardour glow (Officer) [0’07]
7 Act 1 Scene 1 No 4, Chorus: Shall we the God of Israel fear? [1’51]
8 Act 1 Scene 2 No 1, Recitative: Now persecution shall lay by her iron rod (1st Israelite) [0’16]
9 Act 1 Scene 2 No 2, Air: Tune your harps to cheerful strains (1st Israelite) [4’21]
10 Act 2 Scene 2 No 3, Chorus: Shall we of servitude complain? [1’24]
11 Act 2 Scene 2 No 4, Recitative: O God, who from the suckling’s mouth (Israelite Boy) [0’16]
12 Act 1 Scene 2 No 5, Air: Praise the Lord with cheerful noise (Israelite Boy) [5’38]
13 Act 1 Scene 2 No 6, Chorus: Shall we of servitude complain? [1’24]
14 Act 1 Scene 3 No 1, Recitative: How have our sins provok’d the Lord! (Priest of the Israelites) [1’05]
15 Act 1 Scene 3 No 2, Chorus: Ye sons of Israel mourn [1’52]
16 Act 1 Scene 3 No 3, Air: O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide (Priest of the Israelites) [7’42]
17 Act 1 Scene 3 No 4, Chorus: Ye sons of Israel mourn [2’01]
18 Act 2 Scene 1 No 1, Recitative: Why sits that sorrow on thy brow? (Esther/Mordecai) [1’02]
19 Act 2 Scene 1 No 2: Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger (Mordecai) [4’25]
20 Act 2 Scene 1 No 3, Recitative: I go before the King to stand (Esther) [0’13]
21 Act 2 Scene 1 No 4, Air: Tears assist me, pity moving (Esther) [2’50]
22 Act 2 Scene 1 No 5, Chorus: Save us, O Lord [1’27]
23 Act 2 Scene 2 No 1, Recitative: Who dares intrude into our presence without our leave? (Assuerus/Esther) [1’09]
24 Act 2 Scene 2 No 2, Duet: Who calls my parting soul from death? (Esther/Assuerus) [2’46]
25 Act 2 Scene 2 No 3, Air: O beauteous Queen, unclose those eyes! (Assuerus) [7’18]
26 Act 2 Scene 2 No 4, Recitative: If I find favour in thy sight (Esther) [0’20]
27 Act 2 Scene 2 No 5, Air: How can I stay, when love invites? (Assuerus) [3’09]
28 Act 2 Scene 3 No, Recitative: With inward joy his visage grows (1st Israelite/2nd Israelite) [0’16]
29 Act 2 Scene 3 No 2, Chorus: Virtue, truth, and innocence [2’43]
30 Act 3 Scene 1 No 1, Air: Jehovah crown’d with glory bright (Priest of the Israelites) [1’58]
31 Act 3 Scene 1 No 2, Chorus: He comes, he comes to end our woes [4’17]
32 Act 3 Scene 2 No 1, Recitative: Now, O Queen, thy suit declare (Assuerus/Esther) [1’38]
33 Act 3 Scene 2 No 2, Accompagnato: Turn not, O Queen, thy face away (Haman) [2’36]
34 Act 3 Scene 2 No 3, Air: Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee! (Esther) [4’52]
35 Act 3 Scene 2 No 4, Recitative: Guards, seize the traitor, bear him hence! (Assuerus) [0’40]
36 Act 3 Scene 2 No 5, Air: How art thou fall’n from thy height! (Haman) [6’10]
37 Act 3 Scene 3, Chorus with soli: The Lord our enemy has slain [11’57]

Personnel:
Dunedin Consort
John Butt, conductor
Ashley Turnell, tenor
Electra Lochhead, soprano
Robin Blaze, countertenor
Susan Hamilton, soprano
Nicholas Mulroy, tenor
Matthew Brook, bass
Robert Davies, bass
James Gilchrist, tenor
Thomas Hobbs, tenor

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