While the story is a complicated Old Testament plot, Mendelssohn’s music captures the tone of the tragedy with delight, whimsy, and severity.
The final version of Athalia, as presented on this recording, calls for three soloists, full chorus and orchestra, and two orators. Most of the action of the play is delivered by the orators’ narration. Ulrike Goetz and Rudolf Guckelsberger deliver the text in a sure tone with both lilting cadences and strong declamation. The solo and choral movements provide emotional responses to the action and take up roles in the story as well. Like Mendelssohn’s better know dramatic scores, his oratorio Elijah and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the music of Athalia is very vivid and colorful. The music paints a clear picture of the action with sweet melodies of praise, sorrowful laments, and strong contrapuntal choruses of damnation.
Conductor Helmuth Rilling leads the three female soloists, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR in a clean, crisp performance. The Gächinger Kantorei sings with an open tone and precise German diction. The sopranos are occasionally a little thin when attempting a soft ethereal sound in the higher register. But overall the choral singing is evenly balanced, precisely in tune, and confidently virile, particularly in the men. Sopranos Letizia Scherrer and Katalin Halmai, and alto Daniela Sindram sing with a strong sense of drama without compromising their beautiful tone. Singing mostly in duets and in concert with the chorus, they all show a subtle sensitivity to ensemble. The orchestra plays equally well bringing a festive flourish to the performance, highlighted by the bright vitality of the brass.
This obscure of work of Mendelssohn is presented handsomely on this Hänssler Classic disc. Helmut Rilling has made a career of researching and performing German choral music and this recording of Athalia maintains his high quality. Extensive program notes outlining the historical and musical background of the work accompany the fine performance. While not a groundbreaking work or recording, Athalia is another example of Mendelssohn’s mastery of evoking specific drama in his music.