Strong Performance of Handel's 1st Great English Oratorio
Nicholas A. Deutsch | New York, NY USA | 05/21/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Please note: I believe the previous reviewer's comments concerning sound quality don't refer to this recording at all, but to the performance (under Joachim Carlos Martini) on Naxos 8.554364-65. This version, under Peter Neumann, has warm, well-focused acoustics, perhaps a bit more reverberant and 'churchy' than one would ideally like, but flattering to both voices & orchestra.
This is in fact the first serious challenge to Christopher Hogwood's landmark 1st recording; Naxos has its attractions, not least the low price, but overall this is in a different league. 'Athalia' is Handel's 3rd English oratorio, arguably the 1st completely successful one both as music & drama. Like 'Esther,' it's based on a play by Jean Racine which sought to emulate the ancient Greek tragedy, thus providing composers with ready-made choral interludes. (In additional to the original Moreau score, both Mendelssohn and the 20th century Swiss composer Frank Martin set Racine's verses for productions of the play.) The libretto for 'Athalia' presents a sort of Reader's Digest version of the play; Handel's audience would have filled in the back story and plot details from their knowledge of the Bible. While later Handel works such as 'Samson,''Saul,''Belshazzar,''Theodora' & 'Jeptha' delve deeper, the characters here are firmly & vividly drawn, not least the guilt-ridden 'apostate Queen' herself, whose downfall forms the central action of the piece.
Conducting, choral & orchestral work are all 1st rate, & the cast of soloists is generally strong. The standouts are soprano Simone Kermes (Athalia), who delivers a strongly dramatic reading, & bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Abner). Another supporting singer, tenor Thomas Cooley (Mathan) is also excellent, & the only native English-speaker. In the central soprano role of Josabeth, Olga Pasichnyk sounds consistently lovely, but doesn't always summon the requisite fire for the character's feistier moments, such as the indignant 'Soothing tyrant.' Countertenor Martin Oro is not especially distinguished as Joad (one of the few leading Handel roles actually originated by a countertenor) & Trine Wilsberg Lund, a woman in a boy soprano role (Joas) is fine, although one misses the contrasting timbre of a treble's voice, especially in the key Act II scene with all 3 sopranos. The English is accurate, if occasionally accented, & not always ideally clear. Overall, however, under Neumann's acute direction, it's an exciting & deeply felt performance.
Hogwood's strongly cast version still deserves consideration, however. He may not be as dramatically inclined a conductor, but he has all-English-speaking forces, which many may consider a plus. Another factor is that the 3 soprano roles are cast with far more contrasted voices: there's a boy soprano (Aled Jones) & 2 mightily different women, Emma Kirkby (Josabeth) & Joan Sutherland (Athalia). The latter may be audibly past her prime in spots, with occluded or unsteady tone, but she brings both great musical & dramatic authority to the part, & as was invariably the case when she worked under conductors other than her husband, her diction is far clearer than one might expect."
This is the recording of Athalia to own!
David | North Carolina, USA | 02/02/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have three recordings of this outstanding work, and this one is by far the best. Ignore the review regarding the sound quality--he must be listening on faulty speakers, for my recording is superb."