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With Handel’s Help, Esther Saves a Race


Three weeks after a historically important revival of an Esther oratorio with Hebrew text and music by Cristiano Lidarti, we heard Handel’s Esther on the same text in English. Both concerts honored the festival of Purim which Jews celebrated last Thursday.

King’s Chapel in Boston, long known for the well-rehearsed and knowledgeable concert-series performances of wide-ranging repertory from its slightly supplemented church choir, offered the Handel version on Sunday. (I sang briefly with them back in 1960, when my harmony teacher, Daniel Pinkham directed, and when it included some of the better-known freelance soloists in the Boston area). A small orchestra (oboe, two bassoons, strings 2-2-1-1-1, with individual pieces including two horns, trumpet, and a harp) with organ continuo (a slightly understated Tom Sheehan) provided a full instrumental support. Heinrich Christensen conducted with good attention to precise rhythmic detail, finding dramatic strength in the big choruses where the total sound is most impressive.  Scene VI brought together the principals and chorus for a grand finale, well punctuated by Robinson Pyle’s bright and virtually inerrant trumpet.

In his well-proportioned and not overly long arias and recitatives, Handel gave opportunities for a fine range of expression, from near-coloratura style, to pathetic-chromatic descending bass lines, to a variety of dotted rhythms. Individuals stepped out of the chorus for recitatives, ten arias, and three duets. Among them, Brian Church (bass) as the villain Haman, and Andy Troska (tenor) as noble Mordecai, and Heather Holland (alto) stood out, with pleasing tones and secure technique.

Handel had written oratorios in Italian and German before arriving in England; Esther, composed in 1718, is considered his first oratorio with English text. In 1732 he took it up again and considerably expanded it into its present form of six scenes, re-using some music he had composed before in other works. The New Grove notes that one of the recycled pieces in Esther was an organ concerto; this was probably the fleet-fingered concertante for harp (Franziska Huhn) with strings that accompanied the aria “Praise the Lord” in Scene 2, with figuration right out of “For unto us a child is born” in a much more familiar work. Messiah (1742, ten years later!) seemed to be echoed in the final litanic “For ever blessed be thy holy name” and in the choral writing generally: the fugato style in “Sing songs of praise,” the pastorale in 6/8 “Ye Sons of Israel, mourn,” the very full sound at “He comes to end our woes” with two corni da caccia (Elizabeth Axtell and John Aubrey) underlining this brilliantly. Handel’s dramatic and pictorial imagination came forth repeatedly, as in the brisk descending melody of “Descend, ye Cedars, haste, ye Pines” and the wriggling obbligato in Esther’s aria “Flattering tongue, no more I hear thee”; the chromatic bass line with creeping harmony in “Turn not, O Queen” is as harmonically rich as anything by J. S. Bach from the same time. Oboe with plucked strings accompanied the aria “Tune your harps.” and I remembered the similar coloristic pizzicati in the “bell” recitative in Bach’s Cantata BWV 198 Trauer Ode (Funeral Ode). I mention all these qualities in support of how Handel, while vigorously assimilating the Italian styles favored in Europe during his traveling maturity, never strayed far from the Germanic roots that he shared with his Thuringian contemporary, who stayed at home.

For those who attended both settings of Esther, it hardly needs saying that Handel’s is a much better work musically than Lidarti’s; but the overall Purimistic experience, not to mention the purely historical, of hearing two comparable and contrasting approaches to the same text was as valuable as it was refreshing. I am sorry I didn’t hear the second night of the Hebrew Esther, knowing well from my own experience how miscellaneous mishaps can wound a performance as they did on the first. And King’s Chapel can be congratulated as well on bringing forth a work seldom heard at all, one that surely compares favorably with others, like Messiah and Israel in Egypt, heard all the time. (In 1965, in Oregon, I played continuo in two performances of Belshazzar, which has some wonderful music; at the time, it was advertised as an American premiere and it might have been.)

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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