For young performers there is huge excitement in evenings such as we enjoyed at Snape Maltings on Sunday night: glorious, alert rhythmic and authentic Handelian playing by the excellent Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra, expert leadership by the highly experienced conductor Richard Egarr and a chance to show a near-capacity audience what can be done with Handel's 1733 oratorio Athalia, a success from its first performance in Oxford onwards and a work now regarded as one of the cornerstones of the English oratorio repertoire.
And with advocacy such as was given in this performance by Egarr and his eighteen young singers, all of whom had been given prior masterclasses and coaching by Michael Chance and by Rita Dams, it is not hard to see why Athalia works so well in the concert hall. From the opening bars of the overture, Egarr kept the texture light, the forward momentum brisk and the accents beautifully pointed – the string and woodwind appoggiaturas flashed by and the full orchestral sound was plump and satisfying. As so often, an evening of Handel proved to be a rich bill of fare.
The Maltings is ideal for semi- (or in this case, barely-) staged performances of this sort. The singers stood behind the orchestra, across the full width of the stage for all the chorus work, and the soloists walked to the front for their airs, accompagnatos, recitatives and duets. This sound balance proved near ideal and the absence of real dramatic characterisation had its compensation in the ability of each soloist to watch and feel the pulse of Egarr's music making, both on his feet for full choral and orchestral forces and seated at the continuo for the work's more lyrical moments.
The Biblical Athalia was Jezebel's daughter. She usurped the throne of Judah but was subsequently deposed herself for too much Baal-worship; her priests rose up and the young Joas took her place as King. The Samuel Humphreys libretto to which Handel set some highly effective music moves the story along: on the side of good are Joad and Josabeth, protecting Joas, and ranged against them are Athalia, Mathan and Abner. All have their moments and there are some splendid dramatic choruses throughout the work.
As Athalia, Caroline MacPhie showed acting promise: very young for the role, she was the only soloist to attempt to put drama into the vocal line and to get a spinto effect into lines such as 'Horrors all my hopes destroy', No 18 in Act One. As the evening progressed she may have tired slightly and by No 32, 'My vengeance awakes me', there was no real menace in the voice any more. But she sang the part nicely and accurately throughout, and made an impact.
The Canadian soprano Sarah Barnes sang Josabeth, a part that could be described as 'drippy'. She has a young and appealing timbre, very little vibrato, and sufficient power to fill the Maltings with resonant ease. Her showpiece aria, No 26, 'Through the land so lovely blooming', was under-characterised however (gorgeous double flute obbligato accompaniment) and it was only in No 33, her duet with Joas, that we had the sense of what she might be able to make of a dramatic part: this was well contrasted singing. As for Joas, fellow Canadian Mireille Asselin gave for me the most appealing female vocal performance of the evening. She has a pure, piping sound (Handel specified a boy soprano for the role) and sang well within herself throughout, most beautifully. It was bad luck for Josabeth incidentally that right at the end, in her final duet with Joad, she lost her way briefly: but Egarr cued her back in and all was well.
The men were nicely contrasted. I should like to hear more of Lester Lardenoye, the Dutch counter-tenor singing the role of the high priest Joad, whose musicality allowed him to let the music breathe, never to force the line and to provide vocal colouring to his well-taken part. There is at the moment an alarming (but not unpleasant) change in his register below the stave, which reminds us what the counter-tenor voice is all about. As Mathan, priest of Baal, James Geer produced a beautifully mellifluous sound and also proved to have excellent breath control: his sense of line was unerring and he has the making of a fine lyrical tenor. Finally, as Abner, bass Matthew Cassils made light of all his fast passage work and sang the part with assurance and ease. His sound in the lower register has not yet developed fully however: his high notes rang out splendidly but volume dropped an octave below. Nevertheless, his was an enjoyable performance.
The overall effect of the music making was invigorating and inspiring: as the final chorus rang out, 'Give glory to his aw'ful name', there was a sense of immense promise in the hall. It was not, however, the finished article: the soloists all being at around the same stage of development, there was inevitably a lack of contrast between the various characters so vividly depicted in Handel's music. So one is tempted to think five stars for inspiration, three for execution: thus not quite a true four star performance overall. But I should have been very sorry to miss it.
Boris Berezovsky plays Rachmaninoff's Fourth Piano Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra under Antonio Pappano at Snape Maltings on Thursday 21 August 2008