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 Recording of the Week  Handel in England

Handel spent so much of his career in London that he’s often thought of as a sort of honorary Englishman, and I have recordings of three of his English-language works to tell you about today.

James Gilchrist
James Gilchrist

Top of the pile is the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort’s Esther. Recordings of this work aren’t exactly thick on the ground and this fresh, vital performance left us wondering how on earth it’s been so eclipsed by Judas Maccabeus and Samson. As well as having a strong dramatic impetus which put me in mind of the Bach Passions in places, the score is an absolute treasure-trove of arias: highlights include the alto lament ‘O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide’ (ravishingly sculpted by a plangent Robin Blaze), Esther’s defiant rage aria ‘Bloody wretch’ and the gorgeous pair of tenor arias in which the king Assuerus puts love before duty.

The ever-excellent James Gilchrist is at his most mellifluous here, and like his fellow soloists blends seamlessly into the whole for the choruses. As in the Dunedin’s acclaimed Matthew Passion, the forces are small and because of the relatively large number of characters, most singers step out for a solo role.

The titular heroine is sung by the Dunedin’s co-founder Susan Hamilton. Hers is a very light, bright, almost treble-like instrument and on first hearing I did hanker after something a bit plusher and more substantial, but as John Butt points out in his booklet note, the scoring of Esther’s arias suggests that Handel wrote the role for a small voice (perhaps even for a boy) so the casting here sits well with the group’s focus on authenticity.

Lucy Crowe
Lucy Crowe

We’ve also been enjoying Handel’s little-known incidental music for Tobias Smollett’s Alceste, which sadly never made it to the stage for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. The booklet note suggests that the project may have run out of financial steam, or that tensions may have arisen between composer and producer. Only fragments survive, and for the most part the singers don’t portray actual characters, so the narrative isn’t continuous, but there’s no lack of direction or drama for all that.

Some of the finest music was written for the soprano (Thomas Arne’s wife Cecilia Young) and Lucy Crowe is ravishing: it’s worth getting this disc just to hear her liquid middle register and hypnotic phrasing in the beautiful ‘Gentle Morpheus’. Andrew Foster-Williams is gleefully baleful as the infernal oarsman Charon, and Benjamin Hulett sings with distinctive tone and a fine sense of line in his three gorgeous arias.

Also recently released is an audio recording of Glyndebourne’s 1996 Theodora, already something of a legend in its own lifetime thanks to the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s sublime Irene and Peter Sellars’s controversial but much-praised production. Released on DVD back in 2004, Sellars’s staging of the oratorio (which is more usually performed in concert form) transplants the story of state-sanctioned religious persecution to modern-day America.

In this live recording the theatricality leaps out of the speakers in more ways than one: the footsteps and the hysterical laughter of the chorus remain, but more importantly, the ambivalent vision which made Sellars’s production so powerful is tangible even without the visual dimension. We sense the underlying fanaticism of Lieberson’s rapturous Irene as well as all the bullish insecurity of Frode Olsen’s governor; Richard Croft’s supremely-sung Septimius veers between baffled frustration and empathy like a Greek Chorus, and it’s a treat to hear the young David Daniels (in his UK stage debut, if I remember rightly) singing with such sweet-toned focus.

Like many die-hard Handelians, I already own and cherish the DVD, but it’s good to have this superlative performance in portable form, and those of you who prefer your Handel oratorio sans orange jumpsuits and lethal injections will surely welcome the chance to hear it in sound-only.

Handel: Esther

Susan Hamilton (Esther), Nicholas Mulroy (Mordecai), Matthew Brook (Haman), Thomas Hobbs (1st Israelite), Robin Blaze (Priest), James Gilchrist (Habdonah / Assuerus) & Electra Lochhead (Israelite Boy); Nicholas Wearne (organ continuo), Dunedin Consort, John Butt

Available Format: SACD

Handel: Alceste

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor) & Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone), Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Handel: Theodora, HWV 68

Frode Olsen (Valens), David Daniels (Didymus), Richard Croft (Septimius), Dawn Upshaw (Theodora), Lorraine Hunt (Irene), Michael Hart-Davis (Messenger) & William Christie (conductor, continuo), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & The Glyndebourne Chorus

Available Format: CD