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Music review: Handel’s Esther (Solomon’s Knot)

by
07 June 2024

Fiona Hook reviews a sparkling Esther revival

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HANDEL’s Esther is generally accepted to be the first English oratorio, composed in 1718. The story, from the Old Testament, tells how Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia, saves her people from slaughter by begging her husband, Ahasuerus, to reverse a decree from his chief minister, Haman, commanding the slaughter of the Jews. With little musical delineation between characters and a libretto from the moon-and-June school of lyric writing, it is not one of Handel’s best efforts. All credit, therefore, to the musicians of Solomon’s Knot, who brought it to sparkling life at the Wigmore Hall, in London.

Throughout its six scenes, singers in evening dress fleshed out Handel’s personalities as they moved around a limited stage area to act out the drama. Xavier Hetherington’s mellifluous Ahasuerus brought his fainting wife a chair, and they took hands, clearly in love. Zoë Brookshaw’s Esther commanded the stage, pleading with her husband in a glowing soprano, while spitting and shrieking with rage in “Flatter’ring tongue no more I hear thee!” Haman, the bass Alex Ashworth, moved from bullying assurance to unctuous grovelling, trailing after an impervious Esther as she turned her back.

Among a cast of excellent minor characters, Joseph Doody’s Mordecai and James Hall’s Priest of the Israelites were particularly memorable. The ten soloists also acted as chorus, singing from memory with diction audible at the back of the hall as they switched from menacing the Jews in “Shall we the God of Israel fear?”, to those fearful Jews making the long diphthong of “mourn” resound as it passed between voices in “Ye sons of Israel”.

A very small orchestra — two first and second violins, one each of lower strings — swung along with the rhythm. Everyone who could stand stood, including two bassoons whose throaty tones added another colour to the tonal soup. Unusually, the brass section was all women, two robust horns and the trumpeter Fruzsina Hara with her flurries of golden notes. Some moments stood out: the delicate harp and flute accompaniment to “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise”, and the quite extraordinary oboe-playing of Daniel Lanthier, whose bent notes and deliberate wailing amplified the grimness of Haman’s final “How art thou fall’n”.

The rapport between the performers was incredibly close.

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