Original Cannons Version 1720
Dunedin Consort’s highly anticipated new recording of ‘Esther – First Reconstructable Version (Cannons), 1720′ is the third recording in its hugely successful Handel series. Dunedin Consort has set the bar high for this Handel performance with a Gramophone Award in 2007 for ‘Messiah’ and a BBC Radio 3 ‘Building a Library’ First Choice accolade for ‘Acis and Galatea’. For Esther, director John Butt has reunited his award-winning team of soloists, Susan Hamilton, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook and Thomas Hobbs, plus well-known guest soloists Robin Blaze and James Gilchrist.
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ICMA Nominee Best Baroque Vocal Album 2013 Awards The Times: Voted one of the top 10 classical albums of 2012 by The Times Early Music Review: Butt once again has proved himself the master of dramatic pacing. BBC Radio 3 ‘CD Review’ ‘We need this thrilling recording...The sound on this is wonderful.’
HANDEL’S ESTHER has long enjoyed the cachet for being the first English Oratorio, but its origins during Handel’s short period composing for James Brydges (who became Duke of Chandos in 1719) are obscure and the exact identity of its earliest version uncertain. What has become increasingly clear is the fact that ‘The Oratorium’ (as it was initially called) went through two versions between 1718 and 1720. What survives of the earliest version (much of which was clearly discarded during the revision) corresponds almost exactly to the vocal and instrumental forces required for Acis & Galatea of the same year, while the revised score corresponds to the expansion in the group of musicians that Chandos employed at his sumptuous establishment of Cannons, in Edgware.
The libretto, like that for Acis, seems to have originated in the close circle of poets associated with Handel and Brydges during these years. Alexander Pope may have been involved, as he probably was with Acis, but most scholars agree that the bulk of the libretto was the work of John Arbuthnot.
It is clear that Esther was a topical subject during Handel’s Cannons years since Thomas Brereton had recently published his translation (1715) of Racine’s celebrated three-act play of 1689. Several turns of phrase from this appear in Handel’s libretto (e.g. ‘O Banks of Jordan’s stream … when shall we behold your Charms again?’, ‘Both Root and Branch they seek to spoil our Race!’), but it seems likely that the author also consulted Racine’s original, having adopted the French version of the name of the Persian King Ahasuerus, ‘Assuerus’. However, as Brereton notes in the opening dedication for his translation, there were many who were of the ‘Opinion that Religion and Polite Literature are incompatible’. In other words, these believed that religion should be kept apart from anything that could remotely be called ‘entertainment’. The Puritan strain clearly persisted in English culture, to the extent that Brereton believed those ‘who are over-run with Superstition, or Religious to Melancholy and Enthusiasm’ outnumbered those who are ‘decently’ devout by twenty to one. Given that a dramatic presentation of a biblical story would doubtless have been publically unfeasible in 1718, it is not surprising that Handel’s first attempt at a musical setting should take place within the context of a private establishment.
What was the point of producing sacred dramas set to music if there was likely to be so much opposition in the public domain? Brereton clearly belonged with those (a minority?) who believed that art, correctly used, actually enhances religion, ‘Tragedy wou’d, next to Preaching, be of all Ways the most conducive to Morality’. Moreover, he suggests that such productions provide a useful antidote to ‘atheism’ and attract those who might otherwise despise religion, quoting from George Herbert’s Church Porch, ‘A verse may find Him who a Sermon flies, And turn Delight into a Sacrifice.’ He also notes that the use of a Chorus, after the Greek manner will ‘to such as are especially inclin’d to Musick … have all the good Effects of the Modern Opera, without any of its Absurdities.’ Handel, of course, would have had considerable experience of the Italian genre of Oratorio, having written two examples of his own in Rome. But it is likely that the topicality of sacred drama in England provided him with an excellent opportunity to develop the genre in new directions, capitalizing on his already considerable operatic experience. What the English context in particular afforded was the readymade establishment of the chorus in the various cathedrals, collegiate and private institutions, with the concomitant genre of the anthem.
in order of appearance…
JAMES GILCHRIST Habdonah – Assuerus
MATTHEW BROOK Haman
ASHLEY TURNELL Officer – 2nd Israelite
THOMAS HOBBS 1st Israelite
ELECTRA LOCHHEAD Israelite Boy
ROBIN BLAZE Priest of the Israelites
SUSAN HAMILTON Esther
NICHOLAS MULROY Mordecai
JOHN BUTT Directo
Overture – Andante
Pluck Root and Branch
Air: Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger
Air: Tune your harps to cheerful strains