Esther - Dunedin Consort - Presto Classical
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.