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Review: Esther

A glorious performance of Handel's forgotten oratorio.

New Statesman
A statue of composer George Frideric Handel sits above Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. (Photo: Getty Images)

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.