Saturday, August 3, 2019

The 2019 Vocal Fantasy Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, signs out with G.F.Handel's "Esther" sung in Hebrew

Photo: Yoel Levy
Taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on July 27th, the event concluding the 2019 Vocal Fantasy Festival, was a unique performance of G.F.Handel’s oratorio “Esther”. Joining the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra were the Collegium Choro Musici Riga (director: Māris Kupčs, organ), soloists from the Collegium Choro Riga and bass Nerijus Masevičius (Lithuania). Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra founder and musical director David Shemer conducted from the harpsichord.


Handel began composing the music for what would become the first English oratorio when serving as resident composer for James Brydges, Duke of Chandos from 1717 to 1818 at Cannons, the duke’s estate north of London. It was a pivotal stepping stone in Handel’s development as a composer and a compelling drama in its own right. Based on the Old Testament and Jean Racine’s 1689 play, the oratorio tells of Esther, a Jewish orphan who has become wife to the Persian king Ahasverus.  Haman, a kind of court minister, feels wronged when Mordecai, a relative of Esther, does not bow to him. As revenge, Haman orders the death of all Jews in the kingdom.  As to the unique performance at the Vocal Fantasy Festival, Handel actually made two settings of “Esther”. These oratorios claimed the attention of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, which commissioned poet Rabbi Jacob Raphael Saraval to translate the oratorio’s text into Hebrew. Saraval chose sections from both oratorios. Israeli conductor and harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El came up with the idea of integrating Saraval’s text with Händel’s music, constructing a new form of the oratorio using the two original versions with Saraval’s translation. How justified was this? It is known that Händel was unrivalled in his liberalism and tolerance and known for his supportive attitude to Jews.  Ad-El performed the “new” version in New York in the early 2000s and with great success. In his Vocal Fantasy Festival program notes, Maestro David Shemer writes: “Some years ago, the cantor of a Jewish community in Riga asked for suggestions for the program of the Mikhail Alexandrovich Jewish Music Festival, to be more specific, for a concert within the festival that would be dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish-Latvian composer and musicologist Max Goldin. When I was a student in Riga in the 1970s, I was privileged to be among Prof. Goldin’s students and the above-mentioned proposition moved me deeply. For the occasion, I suggested performing Handel’s oratorio “Esther” in Hebrew. My colleague Shalev Ad-El was generous in putting material from his New York performance at my disposal. Fifteen years had passed since that performance, and I was sure that if Shalev himself were to return to the score now, he would introduce some changes. So it became my mission to continue the editing process, which, of course, was based massively on the work Ad-El had done on it earlier. A group of young gifted singers took part at the Riga performance in September 2017, as well as the choir and Baroque Orchestra of Collegium Musicum Riga under the artistic direction of Māris Kupčs, a central figure of early music in Latvia…”


So once again, Collegium Choro Musici soloists and choir were singing the work in Hebrew, no mean task for non-Hebrew speakers. As the Israelite woman, Tereze Gretere’s singing was at times delicate and honeyed, at others forthright, with Ansis Betins, in the role of Ahasverus, displaying fine tenor vocal colour. As Esther, Monta Martinsone gave a precise, compelling performance, her singing crystal clear and tastefully ornamented. Impressive, convincing and empathic, alto Sniedze Kanepe, possessing a large, natural voice and innate musicality, gave credence to the role of Mordecai, as she embellished key notes with some vibrato. Nerijus Masevičius made for an authoritative, intense - at times, dramatic - and sensitive Haman, his warm bass voice reaching all corners of the YMCA auditorium. The Collegium Choro Musici singers gave meaning and finely shaped expression to the choruses, the lush blend of the fine selection of voices indeed pleasing. The ensemble of just 15 instrumentalists and the chamber choir might have been similar in size to what Handel had at his disposal at Cannons, giving the performance intimacy and immediacy, with some splendid solo- and collaborative instrumental playing. Shemer’s conducting brought all together in subtle eloquence. A memorable event, the oratorio concluded with a substantial, uplifting chorus energized by triumphant brass and Sniedze and Masevičius’ voices threaded through the weave. 

“The Lord our enemy has slain, Alleluja!

Ye sons of Jacob, sing a cheerful strain!

Sing songs of praise, bow down the knee.

The worship of our God is free!

For ever bless'd be thy holy name,

Let Heav'n and earth his praise proclaim.”

Photo: Yoel Levy



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