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Rosemary Joshua [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]
30 Aug 2011

BBC Prom 58: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Droughts, deserts, false gods, angels, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and a firestorm. Plenty of drama in the Bible. In BBC Prom 58, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players made a good case for period performance of Mendelssohn’s magnificent Elijah op 70.

Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah op 70

Rosemary Joshua, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor Simon Keenlyside, baritone. Taplow Youth Choir. Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. Chetham’s Chamber Choir. North East Youth Chorale. Wrocław Philharmonic Choir. Gabrieli Consort & Players. Conductor: Paul McCreesh. BBC Prom 58, Royal Albert Hall, London 28th August 2011.

Above: Rosemary Joshua [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]


Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith. Graven images have distracted the people of Zion, and Elijah shows them the true God. Christians have monopolized the oratorio, especially in Britain, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn’s spirit. Although Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran, he never denied nor denigrated his Jewish roots. Elijah’s God isn’t Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament. St Paul was written to please Mendelssohn’s father, but Elijah springs from deeper sources. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit which draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music. No wonder Berlioz and Wagner were jealous and did all they could to destroy Mendelssohn’s reputation. The damage lasts still. One antidote is to listen toElijah and think about how he conveys its meaning.

Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players. This was an inspired choice, as McCreesh and his orchestra are specialists in period performance, and have attempted to recreate something close to the 1847 Birmingham premiere of this work, so we can imagine its impact at the time. The early music sensibility is useful, too, because it brings Elijah closer to Handel and Bach, who were Mendelssohn’s own musical gods, and who are quoted in the score. The leaner period sound may be why the oratorio initially appealed not to Establishment High Church tastes but to the rise of the middle class in early Victorian times. McCreesh’s decision to “reclaim” Elijah from very Late Victorian practice is significant, for it connects to a time when Nonconformist Dissent was part of British Christianity, and choral performance an expression of such social values. Because this Elijah goes back to the fundamentals, it’s strikingly “modern” in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, beliefs and integrity.

Orchestrally, this BBC Proms performance was wonderful. Instruments like serpents, originally used in warfare to scare the enemy — baroque fantasy put to practical use. Slide trumpets which still sound natural and relatively unpitched. Goatskin timpani. The Royal Albert Hall Organ restricted to period stops and pipes. Two ophicleides augment the brass, and a magnificent contrabass ophicleides, known as the “Monstre” for obvious reasons. This period sensibility is not merely historic affectation. In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up to those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra thus connects to Elijah’s spartan defiance, and thus has more authenticity than more elaborate instrumentation. Furthermore, McCreesh’s musicians play as if they’re evoking ancient Hebrew instruments. Mendelssohn probably wouldn’t have heard Jewish liturgical music, but he had observant relatives, and was musician enough to intuit how instruments depicted in Bible pictures might have sounded. Mendelssohn is reaffirming his Jewish heritage discreetly but firmly. McCreesh and the Gabrieli’s prove the power of period practice.

The singers of the Gabrieli Consort were augmented by the forces of the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, with whom they’ve co-operated before, and four youth choirs. Exceptionally precise singing — not a word muffled, despite the size of the Royal Albert Hall. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, that no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, great enthusiasm and committment.

Perhaps it’s because the music is so “singable”. When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. These singers seem to listen! Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave. “Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!”, the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground. There are so many exquisite passages, it’s hard to pick out the most beautiful. “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps” for example, where the words “slumbers not nor sleeps” repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. The final “and then shall your light shine forth” was a glorious apotheosis. Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it’s the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. In this Prom, there were three hundred voices, creating a wonderful opulent sheen. These are the “people of Israel” after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it’s utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good trio. “Lift up thine eyes to the mountains”, this group sings “whence cometh help”. They’re so clean and pure, they really do sound like angels.

Of these 300 voices, 181 are the voices of children from four youth choirs who participate in the Gabrieli’s Youth Coaching Project. This is an important part of the Gabrieli mission. Even though young voices break, by being involved, the singers learn the physical joy of singing and appreciate music better whatever they might go on to do in life. Singing is a community experience, and enhances life. These young voices are so well trained that there’s no lapse in standards. Indeed, their freshness adds excitement to the performance.

Simon Keenlyside sing Elijah. This is the key part, on which the whole oratorio hangs, and is the only one treated as a single “character”. Keenlyside is good, though he’s not quite as forceful as Terfel, Fischer-Dieskau or Goerne, but he’s clear and purposeful. His recitatives, “It is enough, O Lord” and “O Lord, I have laboured in vain” could have been more heart rending, because they show Elijah as human and vulnerable, but Keenlyside keeps them “English” and understated, which is perhaps more apt in an English context. Rosemary Joshua sings the soprano parts and Sarah Connolly the mezzo parts. Both were very convincing, though I’m imprinted with Gwyneth Jones and Janet Baker. Robert Murray had some tricky moments but was better in the Obadiah passages. Jonty Ward sang the Youth. It’s a beautifully written sequence where Mendelssohn contrasts the anxiety of the crowd with the pure, ringing tones of the Youth rising from silence. “It is nothing”, he sings three times. Then Elijah begs God for a sign, and the Youth beholds a cloud rising from the waters. It’s the incoming hurricane. The long drought is broken. The music explodes, like a storm, the choirs singing in tumult.

All BBC Proms are broadcast online, on demand and internationally for seven days after the live performance, and on subsequent occasions. To access the broadcast of this Prom 58, Mendelssohn Elijah, please follow this link. Please also visit the Gabrieli Consort website, where there’s a lot about the performance and those to come (Poland and Mendelssohn’s own Leipzig Gewandhaus on 16th September). A privately-funded recording is in the offing — for details read the Gabrieli Consort site.

Anne Ozorio

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