08 Mar 2012

Elijah, Barbican Hall, London

The Barbican’s six-month series celebrating the English oratorio, has now reached Mendelssohn’s Elijah — or perhaps we should follow the Victorians and refer to it as ‘the Elijah’, given that it was performed in English, in William Bartholomew’s translation.

My preference for the German version is neither here nor there, really, given the commission for the Birmingham Festival, and certainly not when it is performed in a series devoted to English-language oratorios. However, it is interesting to note the difference in sound; indeed, it is almost impossible not to notice it. Bach seems more distant, at least for much of the time, though it is not necessarily the case that Handel seems closer. For better or worse, we seem closer to the world of Victorian piety. (Consider, in a celebrated example, how different ‘O for the wings of a dove’ and ‘O k├Ânnt' ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin’ sound.)

One aspect, however, of the present performance could not have been more different from the world of the Victorian choral society, namely the size of the forces involved. This was a chamber Elijah, both in terms of choir and orchestra. The Britten Sinfonia’s instrumental forces included strings scaled at 8:6:4:4:2, wind instruments and timpani, whilst Britten Sinfonia Voices numbered thirty-four in all, quite a contrast with the previous time I had heard the work, from a fully symphonic London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Kurt Masur (in German). The soloists were fewer in number too, limited to just the five, including a treble. The Barbican is a smaller venue than the Royal Festival Hall, though it is certainly not a chamber venue, and there were times when I missed the heft that could be imparted by larger forces — not because they are in some dubious sense ‘authentic’, but more on account of the near-Wagnerian dramatic scale they can assist to convey. One’s ears adjust, though, at least to an extent, and clarity provided some degree of compensation.

The Britten Sinfonia is generally acknowledged to be one of this country’s most enterprising ensembles, its programmes regularly proving more interesting, more imaginative, than many longer established groups. Based in Cambridge — during my time there, I attended a good number of its lunchtime and evening performances — it has recently been appointed an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican. Though that appointment will begin in autumn 2012, coinciding with the Sinfonia’s twentieth anniversary, this concert offered Barbican audiences a taste of what will be on offer: obviously not so much in programming terms — Elijah is Elijah — as in musicianship. My only real doubt concerning a fine orchestral performance was a certain stinginess concerning string vibrato during the Overture. Otherwise, all sections of the chamber orchestra emerged with great credit, from the opening sepulchral, stentorian woodwind, to the blaze of the final ‘Amen’. There was some very fine solo work too, for instance from obbligato cello (Caroline Dearnley) in Elijah’s recitative, ‘It is enough,’ and oboe (Alun Darbyshire) in his arioso, ‘For the mountains shall depart’.

Likewise Britten Sinfonia Voices, recently formed under the leadership of Eamonn Douglas, acquitted themselves extremely well. There were indeed times when I had to remind myself that they were relatively few in number. Diction and clarity were excellent; there was never the slightest hint of (pseudo-)Victorian staidness. Only once did I find the choral singing a little tame, in the chorus ‘Baal, we cry to thee,’ but the lack of wildness — and this is Mendelssohn, after all — seemed more a matter of direction by Andreas Delfs than of the singing as such. At any rate, the call of the priests of Baal to their god to ‘hear and answer … Mark how the scorner derideth us!’ soon registered less ‘tastefully’ and with far greater dramatic force.

Delfs I was less sure about. For the most part, his was a capable performance. Only occasionally, most notably during the Overture, did he drive the music too hard. On the other hand, and despite a truly thrilling chorus to conclude the first part, this was not a reading to grip one dramatically as Masur’s had done. The comparison may be odious, but, especially when we are dealing with a work and indeed genre that remain unfashionable, an extra ounce of musico-dramatic conviction can work wonders. It is probably fair to say that Mendelssohn’s inspiration is uneven here, not least in some of the numbers towards the end of the second part, but fiery advocacy can help persuade one otherwise. Some of these numbers dragged, alas, lending an impression of chamber-scale neo-Victoriana, petering-out Stanford rather than invigorating Handel.

There was much, nevertheless, to relish in the solo singing. Simon Keenlyside made an excellent Elijah, not a bluff prophet, but a thoughtful, sometimes even conflicted soul, sensitive to an unusual degree, whether in terms of characterisation or verbal acuity. The pathos to his delivery of ‘It is enough…’ reminded one, despite the language, of Bach: recitative it might be, but Keenlyside — and, I think, Mendelssohn too — brought the music, not for the first time, closer to arioso. Mendelssohn at his most Handelian, in the aria ‘Is not his world like a fire?’ was conveyed with equal success, echoes of the Messiah readily discerned. Lucy Crowe offered a particular highlight with the aria that opens the second part, ‘Hear ye, Israel’. Clear of tone and direct of expression, this was model oratorio singing, as were the contributions from Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Wyn-Rogers had considerable ground to cover, but moved effortlessly between Angel and Queen. The latter — Jezebel, of course — exuded menace and feminine wiles, whilst the Angel’s ‘O rest in the Lord’ revelled, for better or worse, in Mendelssohn at his loveliest. After an unfortunate start, treble William Carne made up lost ground and offered a number of well-turned phrases. The only real disappointment was tenor, Andrew Kennedy. Oddly, his single line as Ahab offered properly dramatic impact, but much of the rest of his performance suffered from an awkward combination of overt emoting and a tendency to croon. Obadiah was bad enough, but the final, tenor aria, ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth,’ sounded as if it were excerpted from a West End musical, vibrato so wide as to disconcert. Fortunately, there was some excellent choral and orchestral playing still to come.

Mark Berry