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Triple Anniversary Year

2009: a big year in the world of classical music. This year we celebrate three major composers of the Baroque and Classical periods.

It is the 350th anniversary of the birth of English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), and the 200th anniversary of the death of Austrian Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who spent many significant years working at the court of Hungary’s Prince Nicholas Esterházy.
It is also the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), that truly cosmopolitan Italian-trained German composer who wrote most of his music in London.
Only 50 years ago, before the early music movement began to rediscover the sonic world of music before 1800 by using old performance practices and period instruments, Handel was largely known to the general music public for just three works, two of which were orchestral: the Water Music and the Royal Fireworks Music. His most famous piece was Messiah, of course, but outside of this one oratorio, most of his vocal music – nearly 40 Italian operas and as many oratorios and odes – had been forgotten and was not performed. His operas, once the rage of the stage in Baroque London, never stayed in the repertory, unlike, say, the operas of Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. His oratorios were likewise relegated to molder in books on music history and, sadly, no longer held interest for audiences obsessed with the Romantic hero.
Nowadays, mainstream conductors still venture little beyond Messiah. Handel’s other oratorios – full of some of his most inspired and dramatic music – remain ignored.
One conductor in Hungary, however, has already given the Hungarian premiers of at least three Handel oratorios: György Vashegyi. With his Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, he has produced the serene and sublime Theodora (1750) and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740). And on January 7, he gave the Hungarian premier of Athalia (1733) at the Palace of Arts (MüPa). It was a great success and a welcome addition to the broadening scope of works by this towering figure of the late Baroque.
Athalia is concerned with the Old Testament story from Kings and Chronicles about Athalia, daughter of Jezebel and the despotic Baalite Queen of Judah, who has taken control of the country by attempting to destroy the Davidic ruling house. After suffering from dreams and omens of impending doom, Athalia is overthrown by Joad, the High Priest, who installs the young king Joas, who had been hidden away by Josabeth, wife of Joad.
In the present performance, the role of Athalia was sung by Tünde Szabóki, whose clear English pronunciation and vocal power and characterization gave strength to the villain of the work. Her evil sidekick, the Baalite priest Mathan, was sung by Zoltán Megyesi. As for the “good guys,” the Jewish High Priest Joad was sung by countertenor Péter Bárány, who lent keen excitement to the most dramatic part of the oratorio, the opening of Act III. Szilvia Hamvasi sang Josabeth, the protector of the king-to-be, and Joas was sung by Ágnes Kovács. Krisztián Cser portrayed Abner, the eagerly ready-for-revolution captain of the Jewish forces. What Cser lacked in good English pronunciation, he made up for in razor-sharp militancy in his rich bass voice.
The Purcell Choir had the job of representing in turn the good and the bad: virgins, Israelites, Priests and Levites, as well as Queen Athalia’s pagan Attendants and Priests. Handel’s interestingly constructed musical forms gave the Purcell Choir plenty of opportunity to show their range of vocal color and The Orfeo Orchestra, too, on period instruments, was in fine form, the violins easily negotiating Handel’s fast and furious passage work under the expert leadership of world-famous English Baroque violinist Simon Standage as concertmaster. Responding to the description of one scene in the Biblical text, Handel makes the second and third acts blaze with the glory of jubilantly bright trumpets, faultlessly played by Orfeo’s trumpeters.


Athalia was part of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra’s Anniversaries and Premiers concert series. The three-part series continues on March 19 at MüPa with three works by Henry Purcell: the Hungarian premiers of Timon of Athens and The Yorkshire Feast Song, as well as Purcell’s best-known work, the one-hour gem of an opera, Dido and Aeneas.

The third concert, on May 14, also at MüPa, comprises the premier in modern times of Der Kampf der Busse und Bekehrung by Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael Haydn, as well as Joseph Haydn’s Heiligmesse.

In addition to this series, the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra will present Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen on February 3, Joseph Haydn’s oratorios The Seasons and The Creation, on April 1 and May 31, respectively. For more information, visit the group’s website at www.orfeo.hu.

Another concert to feature the music of Joseph Haydn on the immediate horizon will be given by the Budapest Strings on Saturday, January 17 at the Academy of Sciences at Roosevelt tér. Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 in C major (“Alleluia”) and the Cello Concerto in D major, featuring soloist Christopher Benda, will be augmented by two works by the early Classical composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his sprightly and expressive Cello Concerto in B-flat major and the Symphony in B minor.

Pictured: György Vashegyi
(Photo: Felvégi)

Kevin Shopland