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This welcome reissue comes under the auspices of The Gramophone magazine,which had given it their choral award in 1987. The Gramophone was foundedoriginally by Sir Compton Mackenzie (author of Whisky Galore) and hasthrived throughout my lifetime as a reliable source of informed comment onand evaluation of classical music on record. I can’t now remember,supposing I even knew, what other runners there may have been in thatparticular stakes, but there will not have been many better choral setsthan this in most years.
Athalia was written in 1733 and received its first performance in Oxford’sSheldonian theatre, where commemorative performances still take place. Itis based on Racine’s Athalie, the English adaptation having been given,regrettably, to Samuel Humphreys. Humphreys was by no means the equal ofMorell or Jennens who collaborated with Handel on Theodora and on Saul andSamson respectively. He was a fourth-rate hack, representative of thelowest common denominator of 18th century English poetry, and hisvocabulary and diction are as trite as can be. Nevertheless the strengthand simplicity of Racine’s basic plot is still sufficient to provideHandel with a good enough foundation for his oratorio. Athalia was atyrannical queen, a worshipper of Baal who had established domination overthe Jews, the daughter of Jezebel who visited her in a dream and gave herthe premonition of her impending overthrow and death. There are only sixcharacters in total, plus of course the chorus, and the most significantof these other than Athalia is the boy Joas, the true king of Judah.
The casting of these two characters, who dominate the story although theydo not have the largest share of the music, is what makes all thedifference to a performance of Athalia. Joas is sung by the (then) boytreble prodigy Aled Jones, who now fronts a maudlin piece of Sundayevening religiosity known as Songs of Praise. For the evil queen someonehad the inspired idea of inviting Joan Sutherland to take the part. She isa great Handelian of course, but an unfamiliar figure in Ancient Musiccircles. The role calls for a diva, someone with a big voice and abackground in opera. Thus cast, the queen is admirably contrasted with theclear, bright voice of Emma Kirkby as Josabeth and the surprisingly strongtreble tone of Aled Jones. The other parts are taken by the familiar castof James Bowman, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and David Thomas with the choir ofNew College, Oxford, and the period-instrument ensemble is drawn from theAcademy of Ancient Music under Hogwood. Here Hogwood does not, as hefamously did in his epoch-marking Messiah, seem to be after speed records.The harpsichord continuo is fairly prominent, which I expect will not suiteveryone, but it is done with predictable proficiency by Alistair Ross.
Given the general assumptions behind it, the performance seems to me inevery respect admirable. One does not encounter performances of Athalia atevery turn, to say the least, and I feel little or no inclination to lookfor faults with this one. It is absolutely wonderful music and theperformance is a delightful mixture of the proven and reliable with theinnovative and imaginative. I have no complaints about the recordingeither and there is a very helpful liner note by Winton Dean.
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on 11 May 2007
It won the Gramophone choral award in 1987 but the star of this recording is the sublime and truly heavenly singing of Emma Kirby. The recording is a well balanced whole of exquiste moments. Sutherland's slightly deep toned color (a touch of mezzo-soprano color) and her slight vibrato technique make a wonderful counterpart of the evil queen contrasted to the group of the righteous. The choral singing is sublime, clear, direct and vibrant. This is a must have for everyone, not only for Handelians.
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on 10 April 2004
This reissue of a classic Hogwood recording from 1985 brings to a new generation a rare rendition of one of Handel's earlier oratorios. It also introduces for a new generation the sound of Dame Joan Sutherland who, though at the end of her illustrious career, seems better cast as Athalia than in some of her other better known Handel parts.
Here we have the Baalite queen Athalia (Sutherland), together with the apostate priest Mathan (a sublime Anthony Rolfe-Johnston), opposed by the high priest Joad (James Bowman), his wife Josabeth (Emma Kirkby) and their 'son' Joas (Aled Jones). Into the mix throw the Jewish army captain Abner (David Thomas) and you can be certain of excellent singing and interpretation of the texts. All is backed up by the very good all-male choir of New College Oxford.
One of only two recordings currently in circulation (Martini's one on Naxos has many faults), Gramophone are to be congratulated for pressing this to be reissued. The highlights are all of Emma Kirkby's arias, not to mention the contribution of Aled Jones about whom the BBC made a film at the time of this recording, and who included some of the footage of the original concert performance before Hogwood took to the studio.
A Handel completist would not wish to be without this issue - the casual admirer of good singing will find themselves drawn in to another world.
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The Acadamy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood have created an outstanding recording here with this release of Athalia. They are joined by Dame Joan Sutherland. I have never enjoyed a performance by her as much as I do here. Even though she was out of her usual environment of repetoir. Here she works with a period authentic instrument type of recording. She gives a shining performance for this faboulous piece of composition. She usually has a high use of vibrato which I am not so keen on normally. However here it is not over laboured and in fact helps to elivate her role above the other Israelites. Something which is needed.
Also the Acadamy of Ancient Music are joined by the choir of New Collage Oxford. They also give an full bodied and excellent performance that really adds weight to the dynamic range.
Emma Kirkby is in her usual environment in this sort of music. She is consistantly good in her performance and this recording is no exception. In fact she makes an outstanding contribution.
Rolfe Johnson, David Thomas and James Bowman are equally at home in this composition style and once again they are all on top form.
Everyone seems to realy pull the stops out for this epic recording and the choices of performers has been spot on for every character. This is also true of the inclusion of Aled Jones who gives a beautiful vocal interpretation to his character as the boy Joas.
The sound engineering is superb and the whole release is outstanding. Everything about it is perfection. I love this whole package.
The composition is with out doubt one of the greatest oratorios by Handel. It is full of drama and musical texture. It is one of the best major classical works to come out of England over the centuries.
I was lucky to get this release at an incredible bargain price and in excellent condition. I can say that no matter what the cost you should not hesitate if you are tempted. If you have liked other oratorios by Handel then you will like this one, and this is a very strongly reccomended version.
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on 29 June 2006
The first bit of Scene 1 might sound like a comment on the British railway system, but in fact it's a very gentle start to an excellent English oratorio.

Handel's choral music varies in style from Baroque to Classical. Athalia is one of his slightly "rougher" works. This makes it all the better as there is a good stream of choruses throughout. It doesn't have the tranquility of Solomon's "May no rash intruder", nor does it have the loud rousing choruses of Messiah, but it has consistently good, detailed choruses comparable to those of Samson, with some of them becoming quite catchy and flipper-tapping. "The gods, who chosen blessings shed" could very easily be a tune for a Haydn hunting song before almost turning into a mediaeval chant.

If you like any of Handel's other oratorios then I don't think you'll be disappointed by Athalia.
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on 17 July 2010
It's a great recording, but I don't like Joan Sutherland. Her voice don't fit this music. Kiby is great Orchestra is great, I love Handel's music. They whom record it shold replace Joan Sutherland with a other singer. She sing with too much vibrato. I have more than 3500 cd's of classical music. From the antikk to modern classics. So listen other recording. Listen to Hercules with Anne Sofie von Otter. Kirby, Kozena and other. They sing more in the baroqe way. Joan Sutherland is more Bel Canto (Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini) NOT BAROQUE And NOT HANDEL!!!!!!!!! This not one of my best barque recording only because of Joan Sutherland. She's broaken this record from being one of the best Handel recording.
Beware..... Baroque lover. That's reason why I only give this 3 star rating.
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