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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1739) Athalia
Athalia – Simone Kermes (soprano)
Josabeth – Olga Pasichnyk (soprano)
Joas – Trine Wilsberg Lund (soprano)
Joad – Martin Oro (alto)
Mathan – Thomas Cooley (tenor)
Abner – Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass)
Kölner Kammerchor
Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neuman
Recorded November 8-19, 2003, Trinitatiskirche, Köln
DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 332 1276-2  [56.49 + 65.55]


‘Athalia’ was Handel’s third oratorio, coming after ‘Esther’ and ‘Deborah’. So it appeared when the form was still young, at a time when Handel was still heavily involved in writing opera and oratorio was more incidental. ‘Athalia’ was written for performance in Oxford when Handel was to receive an honorary degree. For some reason, he did not take the honorary degree but did perform ‘Athalia’. His intention was probably to perform the oratorio with the mainly Italian members of his opera company, but that summer saw most of his performers leave to join the rival Opera of the Nobility. So ‘Athalia’ was launched with a mixture of his few surviving Italian singers and English singers. (It would not be until ‘Saul’ that Handel used mainly English singers in oratorio). 

The libretto, by Samuel Humphreys, is based on the play ‘Athalie’ by Racine. The play was intended to combine French classical tragedy with choruses after the Greek manner, and was always intended to utilise music. So it was an ideal source for an oratorio. Humphreys sticks quite closely to Racine, thus providing Handel with a well structured libretto. Unfortunately, he weakens this by leaving out some essential detail and omitting some crucial points about Athalia’s motivation. 

Athalia is Queen of Judah and a worshipper of Baal; she is Jezebel’s daughter. She has had all the rightful sons of the House of David slaughtered; the sole survivor is the child Joas who is brought up ignorant of his origins, by the high priest Joad and his wife Josabeth. The oratorio is concerned with the struggle between Athalia and the Jews for the soul of the Jewish people and culminates in Joad and Josabeth proclaiming Joas King. Humphreys added choruses for the Baalites to Racine’s original and Handel takes advantage of this to give us some wonderfully characterised and contrasted choruses for the Israelites and the Baalites. 

The title role, Athalia, is a powerfully evil character who obviously claimed Handel’s attention; he provided the role with some striking music starting with Athalia’s description of her dream of her mother Jezebel. Simone Kermes makes the most of this dramatic character and creates a vivid performance which demonstrates how much Athalia differs from the Israelites. The other chief roles are Joad and Josabeth; Joad was probably written for a castrato but was originally performed by the counter-tenor Walter Powell. Handel attempts the difficult task of making goodness interesting and their music includes a haunting love-duet. Olga Pasichnyk and Martin Oro rise to the challenge and sing creditably and beautifully.  

But these three have a difficult task before them, because ‘Athalia’ was recorded on Oiseau Lyre by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music with Joan Sutherland, Emma Kirkby and James Bowman. A difficult act to follow. 

In fact Pasichnyk manages to imbue Josabeth’s role with rather more warmth than Kirkby, who relies on the sheer loveliness of her voice. Technically Oro is not quite in Bowman’s league but his performance is affecting. Kermes has the advantage that Sutherland recorded the role very late in her career. Technically Kermes is far preferable, but beyond technique she creates a very vivid character. 

The smaller roles of Mathan, Abner and Joas are well taken by Thomas Cooley, Wolf Matthias Friedrich and Trine Wilsberg Lund. Hogwood used the boy treble Aled Jones for Joas. Though Wilsberg Lund sings with fine purity of tone, I did rather miss the distinctive quality that a treble can bring to the role, even one as untraditional sounding as Aled Jones. 

The singers are well supported by Peter Neumann and the Collegium Cartusianum. Neumann’s speeds are vigorous without being driven. They open with a fine, crisp performance of the overture and continue in this heartening vein. The chorus, the Kölner Kammerchor, relish all of the opportunities for characterisation that Handel gives them. 

I have left the most vexing point to last, that of language. The cast is substantially German speaking and the oratorio is recorded in English. Their English is, on the whole, perfectly acceptable and creditable (though far from perfect). But their diction sounds rather occluded and this prevents complete enjoyment of a genre which has traditionally placed a lot of emphasis on the words. Only Simone Kermes manages to create a characterisation vivid enough to overcome these limitations of language. 

But neither is Hogwood’s performance perfect. I treasure Dame Joan’s performance, but many people will dislike her rather mannered delivery. 

This is a fine idiomatic performance of one of Handel’s stronger oratorios and if the issue of the language does not worry you then I can highly recommend this set.

Robert Hugill 



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