~ HWV 52 ~

MD&G 33212762
2 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2003
Released in 2004

Athalia: Simone Kermes, soprano
Josabeth: Olga Pasichnyk, soprano
Joas: Trine Wilsberg Lund, soprano
Joad: Martín Oro, countertenor
Mathan: Thomas Cooley, tenor
Abner: Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass

Kölner Kammerchor
Collegium Cartusianum (on period instruments)
Director: Peter Neumann



Considering the quality of previous recordings of Handel oratorios conducted by Peter Neumann, the release of a new one is inevitably an expected event. Furthermore, there are only two recordings of Athalia already available on CD: the very poor performance under Joachim Carlos Martini (Naxos 1998) and a very good one – albeit unsatisfying and frustrating – under Christopher Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre 1986). Handel’s third English oratorio was composed in 1733 with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys inspired from Jean Racine’s last tragedy, Athalie, written in 1691 for the Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr – a girls' boarding school founded by Madame de Maintenon. The first performance of Handel's oratorio took place in Oxford in July 1733 during the festivities organised for the 'Publick Act'. Most of the Italian singers who sang for Handel during the 1732-1733 had left his company to join a new troupe founded by some noblemen and supported by the Prince of Wales (this is nicknamed 'The Opera of the Nobility'). The soprano Anna Strada del Pò did not leave Handel, and sang Josabeth. The other principal singers were Mrs Wright as Athalia and the countertenor Walter Powell as Joad (yes, Handel did occasionally compose solo roles in music dramas for countertenors!), The boy king Joas was sung by a child whose last name was Goodwill, Gaetano Filippo Rochetti sang the role of the apostate priest Mathan, and Gustavus Waltz was Abner.

 Athalia is a dramatic work full of interest. The linking and succession of scenes in the first act is maybe one of the most extraordinary extended dramatic structures ever composed by Handel, and wonderfully illustrates the changes in the mood, psychology, and feelings of each character. The first two scenes, until the prayer of Joad (‘O Lord, whom we adore’, followed and completed by a chorus), is full of poetry, a delicious mix of anguish and hope. The oboe solo is the perfect medium to leave this atmosphere of prayer to the dream of Athalia (scene 3), described in an alternation of recitatives and choruses. Scene 4 prepares the confrontation between Athalia and Joas the boy king which will take place in Act II. With no eventual real action occurring, this first act is of an incredible density, giving off a very different energy than Act II (which opens with the monumental ‘The mighty power’ with trumpets and timpani) and Act III. Works such as Athalia and Saul (1739) inevitably invites us to consider the 1730s as a period of experimentation during which Handel is proposing different dramatic solutions compared to Italian opera seria. The liberty and intelligence of the structure – using only a few da capo arias – are not the only points which deserve to be underlined in this superb work. There is much to observe about the orchestral colours, or the nature of the characters. As legitimately indicated by the title, the central character is not the hidden king Joas, nor the moving and doubting Josabeth or the faithful priest Joad, but definitely the malicious Queen Athalia. If Athalia is definitely a ‘villain', Handel presents her like a tortured soul instead of a simple tyrant – it is easy to compare her with Alcina and to draw a parallel between the powerlessness of black magic and wrong faith. 

Joan Sutherland (Athalia under Hogwood in 1985) could have offered an impressive portrait of this exceptional figure had she recorded it twenty years earlier. Simone Kermes does not possess all the vocal powers of her prestigious predecessor when Sutherland was at her best, but at last we hear a soprano who can bring to life the terrible Queen whilst doing her music sufficient justice and precision. Kermes' great performance lends the Queen a tragic dimension which fits perfectly well into Handel's characterisation. The rest of Neumann's soloists are not at her level and often seem slightly under those on Hogwood’s recording, but even their weaknesses can sometimes fit their characters: Olga Pasichnyk’s singing sometimes sounds too boyish and tense, but it fits her doubts; the fragile voice and lack of sustain of Martin Oro’s singing does not prevent ‘O Lord whom we adore’ from working, but it is inadequate in other situations that express the strength of Joad’s faith. The young Norwegian (woman) soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund sounds very boyish in her weaknesses. Both Thomas Cooley and Wolf Matthias Friedrich offer good performances. 

Aside from the performance of Simone Kermes, the other achievement on this recording is the musical and dramatic qualities of the choir, orchestra, and conductor. Once again, Peter Neumann seem to know exactly where he is going from the very first note, and he creates a big movement which carries the audience away with intensity, density, and clearness. The main weak point of this performance could be the erratic English pronunciation, a problem that is absent from Hogwood’s notably English colour, underlined by the use of a boys choir and the boy treble Aled Jones for the part of Joas. However, a comparison of the two recordings makes Hogwood not theatrical enough. Neumann's new recording should be the occasion for many to discover a true masterpiece, and should belong in the CD collection of any Handel lover.

© Philippe Gelinaud - December 2004

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