There aren't too many recordings of "Athalia", and this one by Joachim Carlos Martini, recorded in 1996, will be inevitably compared with another recording by Christopher Hogwood made in 1985, casting baroque all-star troupe of Joan Sutherland, Emma Kirkby, James Bowman and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson. Thus this recording is made 11 years later, and one could expect the music director would make significant improvements.
However this is not the case. Martini's conducting is too smooth and mellow; the music of this very expressive oratorio, with emotions ranged from the divine sublime of characters like Josabeth and Joas to the utter anguish and furor of the Queen Athalia, obviously presents a great challenge to the conductor. He is tasked with finding the right balance of tempi and volume for each conflicting character plus opulent choruses, representing competing gods of Jehovah and Baal in Judah and Israel. It is my opinion that Joachim Carlos Martini could not fully bring the orchestra to show the whole depth of this extraordinary music, whose strength lies in contrasts of characters, keeping the listener on alert always. Martini's conducting is so monotonous, although pleasant is akin to melodious singing that lulls rather than excites. But Athalia is not an opus to calm; rather, to wake up spirits of the soul with multi-faceted musical forms, with arias, recitatives, choruses, accompagniatos using a wide range of harmonies. In this recording, the music sounds anodyne.
Singing-wise, it yields heavily to Hogwood's recording. Elisabeth Scholl as Athalia lacks darkness in her voice that Sutherland provides, even though The Dame is not in her prime. Nevertheless, Sutherland sounds more convincing, capable of expressing various moods. Perhaps it is also to Hogwood's credit that his Athalia/Sutherland sounded more appropriately for the role than Elisabeth Sholl in this recording.
Barbara Schlik is perhaps on par with Emma Kirkby in singing Josabeth. She is light-weight and angelic, as the righteous wife of the priest of the right religion should sound. However, her role is quite even and does not seem to require a broad range of characterization - she is always a representation of good, never conflicted. Maybe this is why her role came out the best under Martini's baton.
Joad here is sung by a woman, Annette Reinhold, rather than by a habitual countertenor as James Bowman in Hogwood. She is an adequate Joad, although in real life it probably would be curious to see a woman cast as a Judah priest.
Markus Brutscher as Mathan is not up to Anthony Rolfe Johnson standard. Brutscher voice is not very pleasing, and he lacks any characterization of his role. His "Hark! Hark" aria is so hopelessly bland; the music director Martini should not allow this aria to sound so indifferent; alas, there are plenty of others where the same problem persists on this recording.
I had a good fortune to attend "Athalia" this June 2011 in Halle, in Marktkirches where Handel was baptised and worked as an organist early in his life. The conductor was Nicolas McGegan, Athalia - Isabel Bayrakdarian, Josabeth - Meredith Hall and Joad - Terry Wey. That was a great performance, McGegan played even faster than Hogwood and much more expressive. I include the links to my YouTube videos in Comments section, for those who are interested in comparing and actually seeing "Athalia" being performed.
Naturally, Martini's recording compared to McGegan works as too many Martinis, comfortably knocking one into sleep.
Lastly, I have provided historical background of this oratorio in my review of Christopher Hogwood. I include it here for reader's convenience and to keep the unity of the review:
On 7 April 1733 London magazine Applebee's Weekly Journal reported: "As we learned, the University of Oxford has conferred a doctorate of music on the famous Mr. Handel. On this occasion, the journal will be covering the performances of the Oratorio to be compos'd". Three months later Handel traveled to Oxford with his musicians, where he had led not only an oratorio, but also presented an extensive guest program. There was no more talk of the doctorate - why Handel had rejected the award was never clarified. Possibly the Applebee-Schreiber premature announcement angered Handel's enemies at Oxford, or perhaps he was unwilling to pay 100 pounds for the honor; however he had accepted the invitation of the University Vice Chancellor Dr. William Holmes for the elaborate ceremony known as the "Publick Act" and for conducting several performances of his music.
By mid-April of 1733 Handel was occupied with performances in London. Immediately afterwards he began the composition of the new oratorio Athalia, which he completed on June 7, 1733. He had immediately notified Dr. Holmes about it, and also mentioned that the effort and expense would be too high for the trip, if he was to give only two performances of Athalia. It was agreed that he would stay in Oxford for eight days and perform the oratorios Deborah, Athalia and Esther with revivals of "Acis and Galatea". The event caused considerable attendance - according to Read's Weekly Journal of July 7, 1733, hundreds of music lovers streamed in the college town from London; almost all of the houses for the higher and lower nobility were in attendance, and it was difficult to rent a house within three or four miles for this great opportunity to listen to the splendid music.
Very few at Oxford could suspect that Handel was running into major difficulties with casting. Everything indicates that the role of Joad was intended for Senesino, but the castrato and other Handel's singers from his Italian Opera Company have just recently defected to the newly founded competing Opera of the Nobility. The bass Antonio Montagnana, the originally proposed Abner, had just sung in Deborah and Esther at the King's Theater in the spring. But now the only singer remaining faithful to Handel was Anna Strada del Po. Nevertheless, the always industrious and entrepreneurial Handel managed to engage adequate singers from Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, and the premiere was sung by many otherwise unknown English names - Athalia was sung by Mrs. Wright in the title role, Anna Strada del Po was singing Josabeth, a boy by the name Goodwill was Joas, the Oxford singer Walter Powell - Joad, Gaetano Philippo Rocchetti - Mathan and Gustavus Waltz - Abner. The choir came together from the best singers of the college, and the orchestra, which was distinguished by an unusually large cast, was comprised from some sitting members of the Royal Opera Orchestra and musicians from Oxford. Altogether about seventy singers and instrumentalists formed the ensemble that had delivered the Handel's program in Oxford.
On 5 July Handel began his concert programme, starting with the oratorio "Esther" in the academic hall, the Sheldonian Theatre, where the first part of "Publick Act" was to start on the next day. After a repeat performance of Esther on July 7, Handel had conducted the Utrecht Te Deum and several anthems on July 8 in the church of St. Mary's, and "Athalia" was supposed to be heard on July 9.
However, the premiere happened on July 10 instead because the "Publick Act" lasted longer than anticipated. The premier of "Athalia" was preceded by an organ prelude with virtuoso improvisation by the composer, which greatly excited the audience. Consequently, "Athalia" enjoyed great triumph, and when Handel left Oxford for London, on July 13th, he had with him 2000 pounds as a material sign of the audience admiration for his art.
Handel's first English oratorio is Esther (1718/1732); together with subsequent Deborah (1733) and then Athalia (1733) they form a kind of trilogy: each of these works tells a story of how the Israelites with Jehovah's help were rescued from a serious hardship. Three women are the focus of attention. Two of them, Esther and Deborah, are traditionally depicted as courageous, energetic, and adored by their people; Queen Athalia, however, is as tyrannical Baal-follower, a negative principal character, so much that one might wonder why the oratorio is not named after Josabeth.
One reason might be the popularity of the literary text: Athalie, Jean Racine's last tragedy (1691), intended for the education of the girl's college founded by Madame de Maintenon at Saint-Cyr, was written as a classic French tragedy with choruses after the Greek manner, based on the text from Old Testament. As such a mix it presented an interesting opportunity for Handel to create an oratorio on rich subject, opulently adorned with magnificent choruses. Racine had already incorporated music for choruses in his previous play Esther, likewise written for Saint-Cyr. Handel's librettist for all the three oratorios was Samuel Humphreys, ready to collaborate with the composer to satisfy his demands. Athalia is thereby is a mix of Old Testament, Greek tragedy, French tradition, English translation and German music.
At Oxford, where for centuries great theologians were bred, most listeners knew of course the parts of the Old Testament that represented "Athalia" - Second Book of Kings, Chapter 11 (1-20) and Second Book of Chronicles 22 (10-23, 15). The story takes place 836 BC, i.e. about 150 years after the reign of David. Although idolatry is still practiced in the two parts of the empire of Israel and Judah, there still applies the prophecy that the Messiah will come from the house of David. This is why the fact of the rescue of Prince Joash (Joas in the oratorio) takes on such an importance - Queen Athaliah, a historical figure, believes that all the male descendants of the Davidian dynasty had been killed. In this context, Josabeth and Joad (his foster parents) serve to ensure the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation.
The libretto omits the actual Biblical story, which needs to be understood to better appreciate the music. Joas was the son of Ahaziah, King of Judah. Ahaziah's parents were King Joram of Judah and Queen Athaliah, the heroine of the opera. She traces her origins to Queen Dido and Phoenicians through her mother Jezebel, who passed to her daughter her worship of Baal. Jezebel was persecuted so severely that her name became synonymous with moral corruption; she suffered an ignominious death (she was thrown from a window and eaten by dogs), to demonstrate a prime example of the divine punishment. Joas, the only surviving grandson of Athaliah, was under the protection of his aunt - or Joscheba. Josabeth was a daughter of King Joram; this is why in the oratorio she is addressed as a Princess. King Joram had many wives, making it uncertain of who was Joscheba's mother. A passage from the Bible (Second Book of Kings, 11, 2) suggests, however, that Joscheba was Ataliah's daughter, and thus the drama gets an extra dimension to represent a mother-daughter conflict, thereby giving ideas to some interpreters, like Winton Dean, of Athalia being Jewish Clytemnestra.
Just as with the Greek Queen, the morale of the story of this Jewish Queen was to affirm the idea of women unfit to govern, and conversely, to the righteousness and divine preference for the male rule; from the anthropological point of view, the fall of these queens expressed the continuous subjugation of women from antiquity to the oppression of men into our days. Sallic Law and other later Judeo-Christian laws forbidding women to inherit the throne and to head the government may have derived from these legends.
In Athalia Handel created his first full-fledged English oratorio, complete with arias expressing every emotion - from pastoral serenity of Josabeth to deep anguish, pride and wrath of Athalia, from arrogant innocence of Joas to assuredness of Joad, from weakness of Mathan to steadfastness of Abner. Yet at the center of the work stands the chorus, expressing both Baalites and Israelites with equal ardor and sympathy.
As it was his custom, Handel had borrowed extensively from himself and other composers, and some pieces anticipate future works. Here are a few examples:
1). Abner's aria "When he is in his wrath" is very much alike Zoroastro's aria in opera "Orlando"
2). Mathan's aria "Gentle airs, melodious strains" strongly reminds of the future Dejanira's aria "There in myrtle shades reclin'd" from "Hercules"
3). The splendid Hallelujah is a double fugue derived from Chandos Anthem "As pants the hart"
4). Joad's "Gloomy tyrants" recall a movement in the Brockes Passion
5). Joad's "Cease thy anguish" melody will be reused for the minuet in Overture to "Berenice, Regina di Egitto"
6). Mathan aria "Hark! His thunders round me roll" in the motif of the quivering strings clearly refers to the famous "Chorus of Cold People (See, see, we first assemble ..] we chatter and tremble) from Henry Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur (1691).
Going back to this recording, it is worth listening for the overall education, but it is not the best - another example that something being more recent is not necessarily better than made in more distant past. Well, Handel as a composer is a testament to this frequent truth, too.