Esther – review

Wigmore Hall, London

It's not often that the Wigmore stage accommodates an entire oratorio, but Handel's Esther – the first example produced in England, written for private performance at the home of his wealthy patron, James Brydges, in 1718 – was conceived on a relatively small scale. The earliest version no longer survives absolutely complete, and it was a reconstruction of the 1720 revision that the Dunedin Consort performed under their director, John Butt.

The platform was packed to the gunnels, nevertheless, with the 10 vocal soloists doubling as the chorus and an orchestra of 18 players. In the grandest numbers – the superb chorus He Comes to End Our Woes, with its bravura horn parts, and the lengthy final choral sequence, with its thrilling trumpet writing – the overall effect was magnificent. Elsewhere, the instrumental playing was bright and punchy in the flamboyant sections, neat and delicate in the softer airs.

Like the bulk of the numerous oratorios Handel subsequently wrote, Esther tells a biblical story – that of the Jewish queen to the Persian king Assuerus, who saves her people from the genocidal impulses of the malicious Haman by successfully pleading their cause before her husband. Handel draws each character skilfully, colouring in the emotional states of both individuals and groups with detailed imaginative touches.

Here, Mhairi Lawson's lucid soprano gave Esther's persuasive powers clarity and purpose, while James Gilchrist's responsive tenor showed his Assuerus to be putty in her hands. As the venomous Haman, Matthew Brook's dark bass-baritone registered with malign force, though he also highlighted the sympathy finally allowed the king's official when he is condemned to death. Handel was generous with some of the secondary roles, too, giving fine arias to both the First Israelite and the Israelite Boy – opportunities Thomas Hobbs and Rachel Redmond seized enthusiastically.

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George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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