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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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood