- HWV 52 -

417 126-2
2 CDs
full price
Recorded in 1985
Released in 1986

DECCA 475 207-2
Gramophone Awards Collection
budget price
Reissued in 2004.

Athalia: Joan Sutherland
Emma Kirkby
James Bowman
Aled Jones
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson
David Thomas

The Academy of Ancient Music (on period instruments)
Christopher Hogwood, conductor




The only complete version of Handel's third English oratorio currently available on CD, this period performance, recorded in the reverberant acoustic of St. Jude's Church in London, has a few flaws that are outweighed by its overall appeal. Christopher Hogwood conducts the ensemble sensitively, choosing tempi that allow the music to be interpreted vigorously throughout. The all-male choir's tuning is consistently good—this can be a problem when the soprano part is taken by boys—and they are well-balanced with the orchestra and soloists, the latter placed slightly forward on the sound stage. The whole is beautifully captured in crisp but warm digital sound.

Joan Sutherland in the title role sings well, though her voice is obviously in its twilight years, having acquired a dark, mezzo-like tone and a hint of warble in the high register. These imperfections are offset by her characterization of the Baalite queen, especially in her chilling entrance scene where she recounts her prophetic dream to the apostate priest Mathan, smoothly and stylishly sung by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson.

Opposing the Baalite faction are the high priest Joad, his wife Josabeth, their ward Joas (later revealed to be the descendant of David and therefore King of Judah), and the army captain Abner, sung with gusto by David Thomas. In the role of Joas, former wunderkind Aled Jones sings sweetly. although his vibrato is tremulous at times and his tone tends toward breathiness. James Bowman as Joad, a character also sung by a countertenor at the premiere, displays his usual strengths and weaknesses: a limited dynamic range, particularly in the low register, but also an elegant, tender reading of the part, with every note in place.

The star of this recording, however, is Emma Kirkby, whose character Josabeth has the most arias (four solos, a fifth with chorus, another two if you count her duets), and who is heard at her peak. Her pure, clear tone soars expressively over the ensemble, and her beautiful but tasteful ornaments are tossed off effortlessly. If you are a Kirkby fan, this recording is a must.

© Mathieu Marcil - 1997

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