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DAUGHTER OF JEZEBEL
on 24 April 2004
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.