Review: Esther

A glorious performance of Handel's forgotten oratorio.

Stadthalle, Gottingen Festival, 7pm Thursday 19 May, 2012

You won’t find Gottingen mentioned in any biographies of Handel. As far as we know the composer never so much as visited this small university town in Saxony, but this hasn’t stopped Gottingen from establishing itself internationally as a go-to destination for his music. Home to the largest Handel society in the world, Gottingen’s annual Handel Festival has a spirit all its own, taking over the town’s streets, churches and concert halls with a programme that sets the pace for the nation’s other major Handel festivals at the composer’s own birthplace of Halle.

In a twist that reflects Handel’s own sympathies and affiliations, the Gottingen Handel Festival this year celebrates the appointment of its third English musical director in a row. Following Nicholas McGeegan and John Eliot Gardiner, Laurence Cummings will now take over the direction of the celebrated Gottingen Festival Orchestra (a Who’s Who of baroque musicians from around the world) and lead the festival into the celebrations of its centenary in 2020.

Cummings’ avowed intention is to ensure that the festival has performed every single one of Handel’s 47 operas by the anniversary, so audiences can expect rarities and oddities aplenty over the next few seasons. In this spirit of exploration, alongside a fully-staged production of Amadigi and repertoire stalwart Solomon, this year’s festival also featured a performance of Handel’s neglected first oratorio Esther.

Marking the composer’s transition from the Italian operas of his early years to the English oratorios of his latter, Esther is both an experiment and a glorious hybrid – combining the dynamic contrapuntal chorus writing of oratorio with some genuinely dramatic solo music. It’s also something of a musical mongrel, with borrowings (some subtle, others such as the two Coronation Anthems rather less so) stitched freely into fabric rich with trumpets, harp and woodwind.

Cummings’ orchestras always breathe together, feeling the sway and swell of Handel’s dance rhythms right through the body, and the Gottingen Festival Orchestra are no exception. One of Handel’s most lyrical overtures (with its beautiful oboe solo) offered an unusually delicate beginning, only the contrarian tug of gut strings and crisp baroque bowing tempering the textural sheen. This ensemble is perhaps the festival’s biggest draw, a period super-group whose virtuosity never risks overwhelming the repertoire.

While young singers dominated the cast of Amadigi, a rather more established line-up of soloists led us through the blood and thunder of this Old Testament drama. Announcing her arrival in a flurry of impeccably-articulated coloratura brilliance, Carolyn Sampson’s Esther was by turns softly imploring (her pianissimo shading in duet “Who calls my parting soul from death?” was a miracle of control) and implacably authoritative. Her polished musicianship was more than matched by Iestyn Davies’ Ahasverus, who made much of one of Handel’s more pedestrian roles, gamely stepping up to the unforgiving vocal contortions of the closing “Alleluia” alto solo.

Blessed with all the long-limbed melodies Handel denies the four-square Ahasverus, Mordecai is an altogether more lyrical role and well-suited to the softer grained voice of Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor. Although slightly underpowered in places, his “So much beauty sweetly blooming” benefitted from the fragile tenderness Taylor brought to it, and his sweetness of tone flourished in partnership with Sophie Junker’s Israelite Woman (a rather tense performance that didn’t do justice to her fine instrument) in “Blessings, descend on downy wings”. Relishing his role as the villainous of the piece, Njal Sparbo’s Haman spat and hissed his way through his arias, reaching dramatic climax in a ferocious “Pluck root and branch” that matched Cummings’ brass for clarity and impact.

Set back beyond the orchestra in the Stadthalle, Germany’s NDR Choir were at something of a disadvantage however, and their diction and articulation never quite succeeded in projecting the crucial text, nor the dramatic energy Handel ascribes to their music.

A capacity audience for this comparatively obscure work paid tribute to the festival’s loyal following, and it would be hard to imagine anyone leaving disappointed with this persuasive performance. Cummings has the personality, warmth and energy so crucial to this most intimate of festival setups, and his bond with the musicians already seems well-established. Exuberance doesn’t stop at the concert hall doors in Gottingen, with the entire town in thrall to Handel’s music for two weeks each year. It’s an enthusiasm that is as infectious as it is justified.

A statue of composer George Frideric Handel sits above Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times