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Music review: The Oxford Bach Choir sings Athalia

05 July 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears Handel’s Athalia in the place it was written for

THE Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, with its novel, semi-circular design by Sir Christopher Wren, was opened 350 years ago. It was for this venue that Handel composed his third substantial oratorio, Athalia, first heard in July 1733. This was revived by the Oxford Bach Choir, under Benjamin Nicholas, to celebrate the anniversary.

Given the universal popularity of Messiah, it is gratifying when a choir turns its attention to rarer Handel. Last month, the Bury Choral Society (Lancashire) performed Judas Maccabaeus; and Grantham Choral Society in Lincolnshire gave Jephtha.

The story of Athalia created for Handel by Samuel Humphreys is based on a longish play by Racine (1691); with its independent arias, and severely cut down, it is actually quite coherent and tolerable. The usurping Queen Athalia (the vividly domineering Elin Manahan Thomas) is both triumphant and troubled. Her horrendous nightmare (a powerful recitative) is offset by an evilly gloating vengeance aria. Her ally in introducing Baal-worship, the snaky high priest Mathan (James Gilchrist, tenor), supplied the most dramatic, fearsomely expressive aria of the evening, “His arrows wound my trembling soul!” When he gives up, there is not much chance left for Athalia’s rag-tag of Jehovah-despisers.

Humphreys’s vision is a pretty typical good-versus-bad yarn. He is not averse to fey rhymes. Josabeth (Alison Ponsford-Hill), serene, protective, but tensely apprehensive, is the heroine, who secretes and protects Athalia’s supposedly murdered infant grandson Joas (a young Magdalen chorister, Pip Warwick, most pleasing when he projected strongly). She has to cope with repeats of “Through the Land so lovely blooming, Nature, all her Charms assuming”; and so on. But she has fire too, seeing off the snivelling Mathan with “Go, thou vain deceiver, go, Alike to me a Friend or Foe.” A wheedling nobody, he wasn’t expecting that. Gilchrist brought a nice comic touch to all this.

On Jehovah and the real king’s side came two memorable performances: Abner, the loyal Captain of the Guard (Nicholas Morton, bass) and Josabeth’s loyal ally, the priest Joad (Simon Ponsford, countertenor). Joad’s first aria, gentle and pathos-ridden, with lovely, almost chromatically building strings, made an exquisite start. He plays a substantial role, at times almost like a narrator. “Jerusalem, thou shalt no more” had an especially delicious, unusual orchestral prelude; “What sacred horrors” acquired an unnerving, eerie feel. Ponsford’s voice was pure delight: warmly coloured, rich in character, displaying poignancy, concern, and marked wisdom, too.

Abner’s initial recitative, after spying on the rival side — “Proud Athalia’s purpose I impart” — was as lucid as anything in the evening; his declaration of loyalty to the true boy king was notably moving, and his central aria, ‘Judah triumphant shall rise!’ was rich in distinctive tone and character. Abner’s arias seemed, agreeably, more curtailed than others. There are times when one wondered whether all Handel’s elaborate repetitions — not merely da capos — are dramatically justified. A little trimming might have done no harm. But Handel’s orchestration lent variety, vividness, and charm whenever the period oboe, transverse flute, bassoon, and recorder parts were engaged by the admirable period orchestra Florilegium.

It was to Benjamin Nicholas, visibly master of this elaborate score and conducting most expressively without baton, that this absorbing and capably presented revival was due. One of the satisfying things — the chorus rose to it avidly — was the number of times one hears the spirit, almost the letter, of Handel’s Coronation Anthems (1727) in this energetic work. “May God, from whom all Mercies spring, Bless the true Church, and save the King!” One in the eye for the Jacobites: George II would have enjoyed that.

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