While the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's occasional foray into Handel's extensive output is generally something to look forward to, no discovery has proved as exciting, no performance as exhilarating as this most recent one. For his first appearance with the orchestra, conductor Kenneth Montgomery resurrected Athalia, the third of Handel's English oratorios and one of the more obscure. What he presented, though, was no second-rank work, but a piece of pure Handelian brilliance, a model for the dramatic flair and pathos that characterises his later masterpieces.
Montgomery is a conductor whom the SCO has been trying to engage for some time; and having caught him, it should invite him back quickly. Arranged around the podium in circular fashion, the orchestra played with poise and verve that gave the period-instrument recordings of Athalia a run for their money, bringing a vitality to the music that was reflected in the singing.
As the eponymous tyrannical queen of Judah, Geraldine McGreevy clearly relished the dramatic potential of the role, with a performance that made the most of the bravura character of her music. The other soprano roles aren't perhaps such a gift; after an uncertain start, Sarah Fox didn't always seem entirely comfortable as the saintly Josabeth, while Mary Nelson gradually relaxed into the smaller role of the young boy, Joas. And although tenor Colin Balzer's theatrical dying aria as Athalia's lackey rather reinforced the stereotype that the baddies have the most fun, baritone David Wilson-Johnson made the most of his turn as captain of the royal guard, and countertenor Iestyn Davies, a young singer to watch, was extremely impressive as the noble high priest Joad.
However, the real star of the show - as Handel intended - was undoubtedly the SCO Chorus. Given all the best numbers, including a Hallelujah chorus (not that one) and a stirring exhortation to "bless the true church and save the king" bearing more than a passing resemblance to Zadok the Priest, its members looked - and sounded - to be having a ball in what was undoubtedly their strongest performance of recent times.
Rowena Smith, The Herald, 5-12-05