The sort of questions about texts and sources that keep scholars awake at night is probably Mogadon to the casual listener. But Handel’s Esther, his first ‘English’ oratorio, is a minefield into which John Butt enters brandishing a new edition. Anyone already owning the Harry Christophers mid-1990s recording of the 1718 version with The Sixteen and the Symphony of Harmony and Invention needn’t necessarily be alarmed by the appearance of a 1720 usurper. The date has always been problematic. A viola interpolation aside, Butt’s three-act division can be achieved by pausing Christophers’s disc before ‘Jehovah, crowned with glory bright’, by losing an aria, and by reversing the order of another and its recitative. The more crucial difference rests in the scale of the two recordings – Christophers’s chamber choir and slightly larger orchestral forces, versus the small-vocal-ensemble approach the Dunedins have championed in discs of Bach and Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Paradoxically, a two-voices-to-a-part chorus achieves more immediacy than a larger choir, coupled with a stylish and delightfully intimate band. Yet again, Butt demonstrates that less can be more.
With soloists drawn from a distinguished consort including tenor James Gilchrist, countertenor Robin Blaze and soprano Susan Hamilton, the ear-catcher turns out to be bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s Haman: a ‘bad guy’ whose Act III accompagnato would win over the most hardened of juries. Tenor Thomas Hobbs’s mellifluous ‘Tune your harps’ plucks plaintive heartstrings too.