thu 23/05/2024

Esther, London Handel Festival, St George’s Hanover Square review - a lopsided celebratory oratorio | reviews, news & interviews

Esther, London Handel Festival, St George’s Hanover Square review - a lopsided celebratory oratorio

Esther, London Handel Festival, St George’s Hanover Square review - a lopsided celebratory oratorio

Anniversary acclaim rooted in the honorary Londoner's first concert drama

Full forces under Laurence Cummings for 'Esther'All images by Sisi Burn

“Spring Awakenings” promised as the theme of this year’s London Handel Festival began with a big if messy vernal bouquet of “Alleluia"s and “God Save the King”s. Esther, Handel's first London oratorio, seemed like an appropriately jubilant way to celebrate Laurence Cummings' 25th and final year as festival director.

That meant cramming more than 60 musicians in to the east end of the not exactly commodious St George’s Hanover Square, and some curious balances for many of us in the packed church. I got an earful of the four oboes, with attendant squeaks from time to time, and their pulsing initially concealed the familiar string arpeggios of the glorious anthem we know as “Zadok the Priest”. For the first public performance of Esther in 1732, some 12 years after its modest inception and seemingly a rushed job to prevent plagarsed performances, Handel engrafted parts of it – starting as “Blessed are all they that fear the Lord”, since the king is Persian Ahasuerus and not Solomon – along with fellow coronation celebration “My heart is inditing”. Floran Stortz and Tim Mead in 'Esther'The whole thing is something of a pasticcio, with no less than nine numbers taken from the wondrous Brockes-Passion – featuring later this festival – including the reworking of Christ’s plaint from the cross as villain Haman's unsuccessful plea for mercy to Esther, “Turn not, o Queen, thy face away”. All his music, the only part of the score amounting to a real characterisation, was sung with total vividness by the winner of last year’s International Handel Singing Competition within the festival, Florian Störtz – a young bass-baritone destined for a major career (pictured above with Tim Mead),

The soloists made up something of a dream team, albeit one of various vocal approaches, though Nardus Williams as the eponymous Jewish maiden selected as bride for Ahasuerus got fewer chances to shine as she always does with her intense musicality and poise than Rachel Redmond as the Israelite Woman. Jess Dandy’s utterly distinctive contralto (Dandy pictured below on the right with Williams) joined Störtz as temporary mourner – the work makes a mess of what little dastardliness there is in an inexplicable plot – and Tim Mead surmounted the most difficult challenge right at the end, with the endless runs in his “Alleluia”s between mass jubilation. A neat cameo came from Cummings, clarion tenor as an Israelite in a couple of recits. Nardus Williams and Jessica Dandy in 'Esther'Choral voices flourished in the numerous acclamations, and though the drama in Handel’s first oratorio may be negligible – it’s surprising that Pope was keen to claim the muddled text, made worse in 1732 – another bonus of the expansion is the range of instruments we get to hear, including horns to gild pomp and an elaborate role for Lise Vandersmissen‘s harp, placed centre stage (vocal soloists had to make do with the sides and, occasionally, the pulpit). Everyone welcomes a Handel work with more than one duet and the usual strings with woodwind, and in that Cummings and Co were on to a winner. Alleluia, amen.

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