Notes and Editorial Reviews
John Butt, cond; Robin Blaze (ct); Matthew Brook (bar); James Gilchrist, Thomas Hobbs, Nicholas Mulroy (ten); Susan Hamilton, Electra Lochhead (sop); Dunedin Consort (period instruments)
LINN 397 (2 SACDs: 99:42 Text and Translation)
I adore the music of George Frederic Handel and have often wished I could review more recordings of it, but the lion’s share previously went to Handel specialist Ron Salemi. Pleased as I am to receive this new release of Handel’s
, I wish it were not under these circumstances, for it’s with regret that I note Ron’s recent passing.
The recording of
at hand is announced as the oratorio’s “first reconstructable version (Commons), 1720.” As explained by John Butt in his extensive album note, though
has long been regarded as the first actual oratorio in the English language, its earliest origins are uncertain. Two known versions, however, took shape between 1718 and 1720. During that time Handel was employed by James Brydges, who, in 1719, became Duke of Chandos. With his newly bestowed royal title came the privileges of occupying the sumptuous Cannons estate in Edgware and of considerably expanding the group of musicians employed there.
Butt notes that the earlier, 1718, version corresponds almost exactly in its vocal and instrumental scoring to
Acis and Galatea
of the same year, while in the later, 1720, version, Handel discarded much of his earlier work and revised
to take advantage of the Duke’s more sumptuous Commons forces. Apparently, there was much controversy at the time as to the appropriateness of setting a biblical drama to music; thus, even in its expanded 1720 revision, it was still not a full-blown dramaturgical oratorio intended for public performance. It wasn’t until a dozen years later when Handel majorly revised
in 1732 that the work found acceptance among a wider audience and thus blazed a trail for the grand-scale, biblically based oratorios that followed:
Israel in Egypt
Joseph and his Brethren
Being Jewish, I think I probably have a different perspective on the Esther narrative than Handel’s chief librettist, John Arbuthnot, had. He failed to grasp the humor and utterly absurd aspects of the story, which present a cast of characters and a sequence of events so improbable that if they ever happened at all they most assuredly didn’t happen as they’re portrayed. The
Book of Esther
is trotted out and chanted aloud in synagogues around the world each year on the Jewish festival of Purim, for which occasion children dress up in costumes and congregants stamp their feet and make noise with ratchet-like gadgets at every mention of the evil Haman.
Despite its overarching theme of near annihilation and 11th-hour reprieve for the Jews of the ancient city of Shushan, the story has its moments of laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping humor that might have served Handel better for a comic opera than an oratorio.
The village idiot of the story, if you will, is Ahasuerus, King of Persia, believed to refer to Xerxes I (486–65 BCE) or in some sources to Artaxerxes (465–24 BCE). The
Book of Esther
portrays him as a real dimwit, while the story’s villain, Haman, is his plotting prime minister. As the story opens, Ahasuerus has just made an object lesson of his wife to all the women in the realm. She’s been deposed for refusing the King’s call to perform her wifely duties—translation: He was in the mood; she wasn’t. To further underscore his point, he sends out a decree directing the men of the kingdom to man up, be rulers of their households, and let their womenfolk know who’s boss. And they say Hell hath no fury like a
scorned. Read the real
Book of Esther
, not Arbuthnot’s pious Anglicized take on it, if you think I’m making this up.
Now Ahasuerus needs to shop around for a new queen, so he orders a beauty contest to be held, sending his officers throughout the land to identify the fairest virgin of them all (how did they know?). And who do they bring back with them? Why the beautiful young Esther, of course, but she doesn’t tell the King she’s a Jewess. Why not, one wonders. Ahasuerus doesn’t care about her religion; it’s her, um, physical attributes that interest him. Meanwhile, Esther’s older cousin, Mordechai, who seems to be watching out for her by loitering at the palace gate, somehow manages to uncover a plot afoot to assassinate the King. Thanks to Mordechai, the conspiracy is exposed and the plotters are executed.
Sometime later, the insomnia-beset King, not having a Goldberg to play him Bach’s variations, orders the court chronicles to read to him. From the narrative, he learns how his life was saved by Mordechai, the Jew sitting at the palace gate. He immediately summons Haman to his chamber, whereupon he asks his prime minister how he would go about honoring a loyal and great servant of the realm. The prideful Haman is sure it is he whom the King intends to honor and proceeds to describe how he would parade the deserving honoree through the city mounted on a royal steed, with a crown on his head, and bedecked in the royal robes. The King is pleased with everything Haman has proposed and tells him to go and do it all at once … for Mordechai. Are you laughing out loud yet?
Haman, who already harbors resentment toward Mordechai for refusing to bow down before him at the palace gate, and who wants to rid the realm of the Jews anyway, is now more determined than ever to go forward with his plan for extermination. The King doesn’t have a lot of IQ points to spare, but he gives up another few of them by signing the decree without even so much as asking Haman for an explanation. The lot has been cast. The entire Jewish population is to be massacred on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar. Remember, the King doesn’t know yet, and neither does Haman, that his beloved Esther is Jewish.
After some additional plot twists and turns, Esther finally arranges a banquet for the King and invites Haman who, unsuspecting, is about to be undone. With Haman present, Esther exposes his evil designs and reveals to the King that as a Jew, she too will be killed along with her people if the decree is carried out. In another hilarious tableau, the apoplectic King runs out into the palace garden, whereupon Haman throws himself on the couch on top of Esther to beg for mercy. When the King returns and finds Haman atop his wife, he assumes, well, you know what (as if that’s what would be on Haman’s mind seconds before he’s about to be dragged off to the gallows), and he rhetorically asks, “Will he even force the queen before me in the house?” No sooner do the words escape the King’s lips than they cover Haman’s face and take him away.
But the story doesn’t end there. Ahasuerus now regrets having signed the decree to annihilate the Jews, but having signed it, he can’t rescind it. Why not? He’s the King; he can do whatever he wants. But instead, the great and wise leader of his nation decides there’s a better option: send the Jews on a rampage to slaughter 75,000 of their gentile neighbors, Ahasuerus’s own subjects. That seems like a good plan to the imbecile King, but it’s a part of the story that’s often downplayed or even skipped over in modern, Reform services. Mordechai then becomes the King’s new prime minister, and apparently Ahasuerus and Esther live happily ever after.
As noted, the
Book of Esther
is read each year on the festival of Purim, and usually to a good deal of noise-making and good-natured fun. But a service I attended one year truly turned into a theater of the absurd. It seems that the synagogue’s cantor was hiding a secret talent. He was a practiced ventriloquist, and that year he brought with him to the service his Charlie McCarthy lookalike dummy. For the next hour, the congregation was regaled by the chanting of the
Book of Esther
, in Hebrew, coming from the mouth of the dummy. You had to be there to witness the scene: a singing dummy chanting over the protests of two or three very pious, elderly congregants shouting, “A Shanda! A Shanda!” (“A Shame! A Scandal!”). That the cantor wasn’t struck dead on the spot by a bolt of lightning for such irreverent impropriety has to be evidence that God enjoys a good laugh, too.
No one can say for sure, of course, who wrote the actual
Book of Esther
, exactly when, or if the events it chronicles really happened. It all sounds just a bit too much like an allegorical tale relying on stock characters—Haman, the villain; Ahasuerus, the fool; Mordechai, the wise; and Esther, the beautiful damsel in distress—to be real. And the fact that it was relegated to the section of the Old Testament called
(Writings) suggests that it didn’t rise to a high enough level of moral authority or religious teaching to be included in either the Pentateuch or the Prophets.
Arbuthnot’s libretto bears little resemblance to the biblical text, provides only the sketchiest outline of events, and is totally oblivious to its farcical humor. Instead, he has transformed the story, and not for the good, into a sequence of woe-are-we tableaus and breast-beating verses over the Jews’ impending fate; and Handel, who was incapable of writing a bad note, follows dutifully along with a string of magnificent airs and choruses. We know from Handel’s operas that he was one of the greatest masters ever of musical characterization; yet Arbuthnot gives the composer nothing but stiff, cardboard characters to work with.
As Butt suggests in his note, in 1720, the English weren’t quite ready for the secularization of biblical narratives as theatrical entertainment, and
was, after all, a first for English audiences. In a very real sense, it was a test of the market for this new type of work. One thing is almost certain: Even if Arbuthnot hadn’t died in 1735, after
, Handel probably wouldn’t have engaged him to write the librettos for any of his later oratorios, for he no doubt recognized Arbuthnot’s weakness as a dramatist.
The only other recording of
I have against which to compare Butt’s 1720 version is Christopher Hogwood’s 1984 performance, which lays claim to presenting the even earlier 1718 version of the score. This led to no small degree of confusion on my part, since Hogwood’s alleged 1718 version uses orchestral forces even larger than Butt’s 1720 reconstruction—nine violins vs. six and two violas vs. one—not to mention that Butt’s recording of the 1720 score lays claim to being its first reconstructable version.
While I don’t usually resort to this sort of thing, since I’m not a Handel specialist or scholar, I decided to contact Maestro Butt via e-mail in the hope that he might sort things out for me, and I’m pleased to report that he responded graciously and most informatively. Here, in part, is what he wrote:
Yes, Chris Hogwood’s recording has an excellent sleeve note by (the late) Anthony Hicks, who explains in great detail the state of knowledge about
in 1984. However, in 1985 Graydon Beeks (of Pomona College, Clarement, CA) published his findings on the lists of musicians at Cannons, so that was a year too late for the recording (hence they made a guess at the number of violins). Then in 2010, John Roberts (emeritus at Berkeley) brought out new research to show that the 1718 version no longer exists (since its deviations from the 1720 revisions/expansion were removed by Handel) and that the earliest version that can be reconstructed is the 1720. So it was his work that gave us the impetus to do the recording, since it has a few modifications that don’t appear in the best published edition.
It’s no surprise, of course, that advances in research often uncover material evidence that supersedes previous theories and thinking, but if you happen to have Hogwood’s
in your collection, I wouldn’t be too quick to discard it. In its favor, Hogwood’s recording has a starry cast of soloists in Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Patrizia Kwella, Ian Partridge, Emma Kirkby, and others. Both Hogwood and Butt cast the Priest of the Israelites as a countertenor, Drew Minter and Robin Blaze, respectively. Butt’s other soloists may not have quite the same name recognition, but in no way are they chopped liver. Matthew Brook makes a menacing Haman at the outset when he’s all bluster and boast, and then a trembling one later when his jig is up.
Susan Hamilton may not quite match Patrizia Kwella in sheer vocal bloom, but her emotional portrayal of Esther strikes me as truer to the role. Esther, as a character, is not some sweet, innocent, submissive young thing. She’s actually a rather wily woman who, through connivance and contrivance, lays a fairly elaborate trap in which to ensnare Haman. Hamilton, I think, is better at bringing out the complexity of Esther’s persona.
When it comes to the Ahasuerus of Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Hogwood) vs. James Gilchrist (Butt), the two tenors are equally matched and do a fine job of portraying the intellectually challenged, foolhardy king. As for Drew Minter (Hogwood) and Robin Blaze (Butt), who play the Priest of the Israelites, I’ve had my say on the subject of countertenors before. A couple of other sources I checked cast some doubt on whether Handel would have assigned this role to a countertenor, but in any case, it’s not a sound I care for, whether it’s coming from Minter or Blaze.
That leaves Ian Partridge (Hogwood) and Nicholas Mulroy (Butt) in the role of Mordechai. In the actual biblical
Book of Esther
, Mordechai’s relationship to Esther is a bit vague. Though he’s presumed to be her cousin, he’s considerably older than she is and their interactions are more akin to those between uncle and niece or father and daughter. Clearly, he’s the voice of moral conscience that lays a guilt trip on Esther and goads her into action. When she wavers, he warns her in stern voice, “Esther, think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the King’s house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” Of course, in Arbuthnot’s watered-down verses, Mordechai doesn’t command much authority, but Ian Partridge (Hogwood) does seem to carry a bit more weight than Nicholas Mulroy (Butt) in warning of dire consequences should Esther fail to carry out her mission.
The main differences between Hogwood and Butt are textual and formal. As Butt noted in his reply to me, between the 1718 and 1720 versions, Handel removed material rather than adding it. Consequently, portions present in Hogwood’s recording are absent from Butt’s. For example, following the chorus “Shall We of Servitude Complain,” there are additional verses for the first and second Israelite women in Hogwood’s version that are not present in Butt’s, and other instances where verses are present but shortened by a line or two.
Also, at some point between the two versions, Handel altered the layout of the oratorio, breaking it up from one long act with six extended scenes, as it’s given by Hogwood, into three acts with three scenes each. In the listening, of course, it makes no difference. But what does surprise is that Hogwood’s wordier version takes just under 97 minutes, while Butt’s less verbose version takes exactly three minutes longer, which would suggest that Hogwood’s tempos are generally faster. It’s not an easy comparison to make, however, for the two recordings are banded very differently. Hogwood’s, for example, includes the first recitative, “Tis Greater Far to Spare,” as part of the same track as the overture, whereas Butt’s recording divides the tripartite overture up into three separate tracks. Add to that allowing for the breaks between tracks, and it becomes extraordinarily difficult to make tempo comparisons between the two performances.
In conclusion, what I will say is this: Butt’s version represents the latest scholarly research into the historical record on Handel’s
; the Dunedin Consort in 2011 is a more tamed, disciplined, and refined ensemble than Hogwood’s Ancient Academy of Music was in 1984; Butt’s soloists and choristers are well rehearsed and more than up to the task before them; and Butt leads a spirited, characterful performance that manages to invest a good deal more sparkle into Arbuthnot’s verses than one would glean from reading them. Of course, Handel deserves credit for that, too. Most of all, Hogwood’s 28-year-old L’Oiseau Lyre recording is no match for Linn’s dynamic—I’m tempted to say, electrifying—multichannel SACD recording.
So, if no
currently graces your shelf, Butt’s is the one to have. I wouldn’t throw the Hogwood away, if you have it, but it’s definitely superseded and outclassed by Butt. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the Christophers version on Coro, but it received high marks in
28:2 from both Bernard Jacobson and Brian Robins. For those who would prefer the final 1732 version of the score, the late Ron Salemi Want Listed the Lawrence Cummings recording on Somm in
is not Handel’s greatest oratorio by a long shot, though it’s not his least-recorded one, either. But it contains a wealth of wonderful music and a promise of things to come. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Esther, HWV 50b by George Frideric Handel
Robin Blaze (Countertenor),
Thomas Hobbs (Tenor),
Nicholas Mulroy (Tenor),
Susan Hamilton (Soprano),
James Gilchrist (Tenor),
Matthew Brook (Bass)
Written: 1732; London, England
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