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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL: Athalia
BBC Music Magazine
George Frideric Handel became the most famous English composer of the 18th century, though he was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685. He came into a reasonably wealthy family, his farther already 63. Details of his early life comes to us second-hand, but it is clear that his father opposed his career as a musician. But George secretly learnt the clavichord and was heard by the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels who persuaded his father of the boy's unique talents. He quickly learned the organ, violin, harpsichord, harmony and counterpoint. At the same time, to please his father, he continued to study law.
He went to live in Hamburg and was soon earning a living as a musician and teacher. By now his list of works was considerable, and it is claimed that as a teenager he composed a new motet for the church every week. Soon - he was still only 18 - he was composing operas and oratorios. In 1706 he spent time in Italy, visiting Rome, Naples and Florence. He was back in Germany in 1709, by which time he had also become a conductor of importance. He visited England in 1710 and was adored, his opera, Rinaldo, an immediate success. After briefly returning to Germany, he eventually came to settle in London in 1712 and became naturalized English. By a stroke of ill-luck his German patron, whom he had rejected, became George I of England, and his relationship with the Royal household was, for a time, very poor. His famous score, the Water Music, written for a journey by the Royal Family on the River Thames in London, restored favour. He was then appointed Director of the new Royal Academy of Music in London. By 1731 he had composed 12 operas and had become a most famous composer of stage works. But feuds and arguments led him in the late 1730's to desert the theatre to concentrate on sacred works. There followed a whole catalogue of famous oratorios including, Saul, Israel in Egypt and the Messiah.
In 1750 he went blind, but continued to work as an organist and lived for a further seven years. He was given the unusual honour of burial in Westminster Abbey, and died childless having never married. He left a catalogue of works of a magnitude and scope unparalleled to that point in history, and so far as English music was concerned, became the last great composer there for a period of over one hundred years.
Athalia was one of his early English oratorios and was first performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in 1733, the day Oxford University were to offer Handel an honourary degree (he did not accept as it involved a fee of _100). The text was originated by Jean Racine, taking its theme from two biblical accounts of the fate of Athalia (Second Book of Chronicles and the Second Book of Kings). But from this base, Racine, Handel's librettist and the composer felt free to change everything in the pursuit of drama. The story is told in twelve scenes spread over three parts, and relates the story of the power of God, who, in the country, who deposes the wicked ruler, Athalia, who worships the icon of Baal.
Elisabeth Scholl was musically educated at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and has since had a very active career in the field of Early and Baroque music, working with such conductors as Ren_ Jacobs, Philip Pickett and Ton Koopman.
Barbara Schlick was born and educated in W_rzburg where she now teaches at the Musikhochschule. Her repertoire is quite extensive and covers four centuries of music. She has, however, concentrated on music of the Baroque period and now has the most extensive catalogue of recordings on a number of labels, including, Virgin, Harmonia Mundi and Erato. These discs include a number of Handel oratorios.
Friederike Holzhausen was born in Leipzig where she attended the Mendelssohn Musikhochschule. Since graduating in 1995 she has travelled to many parts of Europe working mainly in the field of oratorio. With exactly the same background, Annette Reinhold, moved into opera, appearing in many of Germany's major houses, while also taking part in many concert-hall performances.
The German tenor, Markus Brutscher, was trained at the Leopold Mozart Conservatory, and after a period of study in the United States, returned to Europe where he has been in high demand working mainly in the field of 17th and 18th century oratorio.
Stephan MacLeod was born in Geneva in 1971, and having entered the Conservatoire there to study violin and piano, emerged as a bass singer. He moved to Cologne for further tuition with the great bass, Kurt Moll. He has since worked both in the opera house and on the concert stage, and has made highly successful recordings.
The Junge Kantorei was formed in 1965 by Joachim Carlos Martini, a Chilean musician. It has concentrated on music of the Baroque era, and in addition to its local commitments, it has appeared in many German Festivals. It has a particularly happy association with the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra, a group of musicians specialising in period instrument performances.
The two disc set has been assembled from 'live' performances of the oratorio that took place at the Kloster Eberbach, Eltville am Rhein, Germany during May 1996. It was privately made by the choir.
There is ONLY ONE version in the current catalogue, and it is at full price. That uses a curious mixture of singers including Joan Sutherland and Emma Kirkby, but the great baroque conductor, Christopher Hogwood, created one of the finest Handel recordings, and, of course he has English singers. The present singers often perform in a German form of English. To find this rarely performed oratorio on a budget label is a unique event, and the booklet includes a full English text.
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