The first English oratorio? It’s hard to imagine a better introduction
This is a particularly welcome and important world-premiere recording. Handel composed Esther in about 1718?20 for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon (and later Duke of Chandos), using a libretto that was anonymously adapted from Thomas Brereton’s English translation of a play by Racine. This slender work, containing only six scenes, lays a strong claim to being the first English oratorio, but Handel seems not to have considered performing it for a public audience until 1732, when the entrepreneurial composer thoroughly revised the score to fit his company of Italian opera singers (including Senesino, Strada and Montagnana, who all sang in English), and enlisted the aid of the writer Samuel Humphreys to expand the drama with additional scenes (which made the oratorio long enough to fill a theatre evening, advantageously fleshed out some of the characters a little bit, and also enhanced the musical attractiveness of the oratorio). This is the historic version of Esther that launched Handel’s oratorio career in London, but it has remained inexplicably neglected in modern times.
Laurence Cummings is one of our finest and most natural Handelian conductors. The Israelite Woman’s sensuous opening number “Breathe soft, ye gales” (featuring recorders, oboes, bassoons, harp, theorbo, five-part strings and organ) is neatly judged by the impressive London Handel Orchestra. The superb choir is enthusiastic and masterful, and the two inserted Coronation Anthems My heart is inditing and Zadok the Priest (the latter given a parody text) are both performed magnificently. James Bowman sounds a little fragile in the most extensive coloratura passages written for Senesino in “Endless fame”, and the part of Mordecai seems uncomfortably low for Susan Bickley (which is not helped by the dragging speed of “Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger”), but in general the soloists form a consistently solid team. Christopher Purves is marvellous as the scheming and bullying evil minister Haman, and is equally good at singing the pitiful and lyrical “Turn not, O Queen, thy face away” when the villain fears his deserved doom.
The all-round excellence of this live concert performance from Handel’s parish church, St George’s, Hanover Square, makes it an essential treat for Handelians.
-- David Vickers, Gramophone [1/2008]