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PROMS 2002

PROM 56: Mendelssohn, ‘Elijah.’ London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, RAH, 1st September 2002 (ME)


‘Without Mendelssohn, I would not be what I am today; this composer is not yet recognized for what he is, and there is so much more great music of his to discover.’ The words of the conductor Kurt Masur, at a post – concert reception given to mark his 75th birthday, and I wonder just how many other conductors there are who can measure up to this man in terms of selfless devotion to the music and tireless quest for perfection from the orchestra. He represents, of course, a direct link to Mendelssohn in that he formerly directed the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the composer’s own orchestra, and after the previous evening’s beautiful but bland performance of Beethoven’s 9th, it was a true joy to experience Masur’s highly charged and devoted direction of this monumental work.

‘Elijah’ was written mainly for an English audience, and was rapturously received at its first performance; the Victorians, of course, placed it second only to ‘Messiah,’ and one usually hears it, as it were, in full Victorian dress, complete with plummy solos and wall – of – sound choirs, since it has not previously undergone the ‘scrubbing – clean’ which Handel’s masterpiece has experienced in recent times. It was clearly Masur’s desire to let us hear how the work can sound when performed with delicacy and without any need to follow the practices of others, and he succeeded triumphantly. Using the trio, quartet and double quartet arrangement of soloists which Mendelssohn had asked for to sublime effect, this was an interpretation of ‘Elijah’ that was operatic in the best sense of the word, with clean, sharp playing, neat articulation throughout and light, buoyant phrasing.

The part of the Prophet makes serious demands on a singer: he must be able to convey grandiose certainty in his addresses to the People, tenderness towards the Widow, and nobility and humanity throughout. Despite not having quite the warmth of tone of Bryn Terfel in his well – known recording of the part, Alastair Miles succeeded in presenting a highly charged reading of the role, growing in stature as the story progressed and giving real dramatic point to ‘Call him louder’ and ‘Is not his word like a fire.’ He was at his finest in the poignant ‘It is enough,’ where he conveyed all the character’s vulnerability and tenderness, especially in such lines as ‘I am not better than my fathers,’ and his ‘For the mountains shall depart’ was as finely shaped and emphatic as could be desired.

Kim Begley’s singing of Obadiah was on this level in every respect; Begley is a lyric tenor with a sweet and yielding voice, but it also has a steely strength behind it, reminding you that this is someone who has sung Siegmund. His lovely, elegant phrasing gave constant pleasure, and his wonderful tenderness at ‘See, now he sleepeth beneath a juniper tree’ made this section of the work the still centre that it ought to be. Indeed, the whole movement from Elijah’s ‘It is enough’ and ending with the Chorus ‘He, watching over Israel’ was exquisitely touching, especially in the Trio of Angels.

I was less impressed with the other major singers. Janice Watson was a musical, reliable Widow, but to my ears her voice lacks pathos, especially in such moments as ‘there is no breath left in him,’ and I did not find her singing as engaging as I would like: since I have been listening to Renee Fleming’s heart-rending assumption of the role in preparation for this concert, however, it may well be that I’m trying to hear nuances which are not as essential as I think they are. Karen Cargill sang the Angel fluently but rather matter- of – factly, and her ‘O rest in the Lord’ will have disappointed those accustomed to, say, Janet Baker, but the tempo adopted here was equally unexpected, the experience being one akin to hearing, say, ‘Rejoice Greatly’ sung as a minuet rather than a pavane. The smaller vocal parts were well taken, with an especially vivid Youth from young Alexander Main-Ian of the Trinity Boys Choir.

I first heard ‘Elijah’ in the grandiose surroundings of Leeds Town Hall, with a grandiose choir to match: the forces of the London Philharmonic Choir, the Philharmonia Chorus and Trinity Boys Choir were equal in number, but far superior in subtlety; from the high drama of ‘Help, Lord!’ through the delicacy of ‘He, watching over Israel’ to the grandeur of ‘But the Lord from the north…’ this was choral singing of the very highest calibre. When ‘Elijah’ was first performed at Birmingham Town Hall in 1846, the ‘Times’ commented that there had never been a ‘more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.’ and the audience’s response to Masur’s direction of the work confirmed not only its greatness but its power to move and delight when performed with such impassioned advocacy.


Melanie Eskenazi


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