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  Three Choirs Festival 2009 (2) - Mendelssohn,  Elijah : Rory Turnbull (treble)/Sarah Fox (soprano)/Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)/Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)/Matthew Brook (bass)/ Festival Chorus/Philharmonia Orchestra/Geraint Bowen, Hereford Cathedral 14.8.2009 (JQ)

was a perennial favourite at the Three Choirs Festival for many years. In his authoritative book Three Choirs. A History of the Festival (1992), Anthony Boden includes a list of all significant works performed at the Festival between 1890 and 1991. The entry for Elijah reads “every Festival from 1890 (and some prior) until 1929” and then lists a further twelve outings for the work up to 1986. I’m not sure how often Elijah has been programmed at Festivals since 1986 but I suspect it’s not been given that frequently. Furthermore, as Hugh Thomas observed in his very interesting programme note, the frequency of professional performances generally, if not those by amateur choirs, has declined over the years Why should this be so, given the work’s stature among oratorios?

I suspect there are several reasons. With the exception of Messiah the public appetite for hearing full-length oratorios – by which I mean pieces lasting more than, say, ninety minutes – has waned, I believe. Also, so many pieces, new and old, are much more readily accessible to choirs these days and there’s an understandable – and praiseworthy – desire to range more widely in programme planning. However, it must also be admitted that, for all its celebrity, Elijah is uneven and, dare I say, has its longuers. In his note Hugh Thomas did not shirk from confronting the weaknesses of the piece, whilst also very fairly extolling its many virtues. Perhaps some or all of these factors account for the fact that Elijah is heard less frequently in our concert halls these days and, indeed, I was rather surprised to realise that although I’ve sung in at least eight performances of this oratorio in the last twenty years or so I can only recall being in the audience for one performance during the same period prior to this Three Choirs presentation.

Given that the work is lengthy and does have some weak passages it needs a performance of conviction if it’s to succeed and there was no lack of conviction on this occasion.

Inevitably in this work it was the bass soloist, in the title role, who dominated the very good solo quartet. Previously I’d only heard Matthew Brook in baroque music, notably some contributions to the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series and as the bass soloist in the Dunedin Consort’s award-winning recording of Messiah (see review). Naturally I wondered how he’d come across in a much larger scale work and in the big acoustic of the cathedral. He quickly revealed that he had ample vocal resources for the role with an imposing opening recitative. As the work progressed he displayed nobility in the dialogue with the Widow and he was very dramatic in the section where he dares the crowd to summon up their pagan gods. In the wonderful solo ‘Lord God of Abraham’ I admired his legato and warm tone and felt that he brought the requisite dignity to the music.

However, as he warmed to the role and got more “into” it one or two nagging doubts began to creep in. The singing was good and he caught the differing moods but sometimes he was just a bit too histrionic for my taste. As the performance went on he had an increasing tendency to employ what were to me distracting facial impressions and hand gestures and occasionally the singing was over emphatic. The worst example of the latter came towards the end of the sublime aria ‘It is enough’. Most of Brook’s performance of this piece was very fine but at the end of the quicker central section (“I have been very jealous for the Lord”), immediately after the long top D sharp, he sang the descending phrase “It is enough” so emphatically that the effect was jarring. I acknowledge that at this part the marking in the vocal score is con forza but Brook gave too much and slightly spoiled one of the key sections of the work. Incidentally, while mentioning this aria I must also commend a very fine cello obbligato by the Philharmonia’s principal cellist, Karen Stephenson.

But though it is right to mention the histrionic side of Brook’s performance – which may not have worried others in the audience – one shouldn’t make too much of them. His was a committed and convincing portrayal, containing much to enjoy. He was suitably fiery in ‘Is not His word like a fire?’, articulating the music splendidly. I enjoyed just as much the dramatic feeling that he brought to the final section of Part I, where his prayers for rain were ardent and expressive. And, in a different vein, this Elijah left us with a fine envoi, displaying well focused tone and excellent legato in his final solo, ‘For the mountains shall depart’, ending it with a beautifully delicate final phrase – and this was another aria in which we heard some distinguished instrumental playing, this time from principal oboist Gordon Hunt.

Though Brook was the leading presence in the solo line-up his companions made a strong team. I’ve long admired Catherine Wyn-Rogers and was delighted to find her in excellent voice on this occasion. Her delivery of ‘O rest in the Lord’ was one of the highlights of the evening. Not only did she delight us with her lovely warm, rich tone and seamless legato but also she sounded – and looked – dignified and reassuring. Throughout the evening everything she sang was thoughtfully and musically executed. One passage that particularly caught my attention was her solo as the Queen (”Have ye not heard?”) Here, as the enraged queen, she gave an object lesson in how to be dramatic and characterful without any unwelcome exaggeration. Everything was done with the voice – every note properly sung – and by sheer presence. Here, you felt, was a real Jezebel.

The last time I saw Sarah Fox was a couple of weeks ago when she took part in the televised BBC Prom devoted to MGM musicals. It’s quite a distance, musically speaking, from Hollywood to Hereford but Miss Fox managed the transition effortlessly. I enjoyed her warm yet clear tones throughout the evening, not least in a compelling account of ‘Hear ye, Israel’. The allegro second section of this aria was one of several instances during the evening when I felt that Geraint Bowen pressed the tempo a little too much but Miss Fox was equal to the challenge, giving a lively and accurate performance. Not for the first time I wished Mendelssohn had drawn a line at the end of this aria, for the following chorus ‘Be not afraid’ is one of the oratorio’s less inspired sections. Earlier Sarah Fox had impressed as the Widow, completely credible as the distressed mother, pleading that her son might live and then, when her wish was granted, sincerely thankful.

The tenor has less to do than the other soloists but does get, by way of compensation, two of the work’s best arias. Nicholas Mulroy sang them well. His timbre is a bit unusual for an English tenor. It’s quite an open throated sound with, to my ears, just a suspicion of the Italianate. I must confess that the sound is not entirely to my taste but that’s a very subjective matter and I’m sure his singing gave great pleasure to the audience on the night. Incidentally, I part company with Hugh Thomas, who is dismissive of the tenor’s last aria, ‘Then shall the righteous’. In my view not only is it a fine aria but it’s also a good foil to the preceding chorus, which describes Elijah’s ascent to heaven in the fiery chariot. Nicholas Mulroy also seemed convinced by the piece and sang it with conviction and style.

There was a fifth soloist, whose part is small but vital. One of the Hereford Cathedral choristers, Rory Turnbull, sang the part of the Youth at the end of Part One. In his opening remarks before the performance the Dean of Hereford told us that this was Rory’s fourteenth birthday. What way to celebrate your birthday, standing up in a packed cathedral to sing a crucial and exposed solo role! Suffice to say he sang with aplomb and fully justified the solo bow he was given afterwards.

The chorus has quite a lot to do in Elijah and generally the Festival Chorus acquitted themselves very well. I was particularly pleased to hear a strong, ringing tenor line, something one can’t always take for granted these days in amateur choral performances. If I have a complaint it would be that the softer dynamics weren’t always observed very well. This was the case, for example, in ‘Yet doth the Lord see it not’. I relished the bite that the choir brought to the opening pages of this chorus. But when the dynamic drops to piano in the section beginning “And he visiteth all the fathers’ sins” the volume this choir produced was surely no lower than mp, which meant that the contrast that Mendelssohn intended was rather negated. There were several other such examples during the evening.

On the other hand, the bite and dramatic fervour that the singers brought to many sections more than compensated. They were truly venomous in ‘Woe to him’, celebratory in ‘Thanks be to God’ and, towards the end, they took Elijah up into heaven most excitingly. Elijah is a big sing but after a long evening – and a demanding week – the chorus showed no sign of flagging and the final chorus was as exciting and energetic as anything we heard all evening.

Presiding over everything, and obtaining some fine and responsive playing from the Philharmonia, was Festival Director Geraint Bowen. I can’t recall seeing him conduct before but I was impressed with his unfussy style and his admirably clear beat. There were occasions when I felt his tempi were just a bit too urgent. One such case was the chorus ‘The fire descends from heaven’, which was taken at a furious pace. The effect was undeniably exciting but the choir couldn’t really articulate their quaver runs with the requisite clarity at this pace. He was also pretty fleet in the second section of the first chorus of Part II. The words are “Though thousands languish” but not much languishing would have been possible at this tempo! On the other hand, initially I thought his flowing speed for the famous chorus ‘He, watching over Israel’ was a notch too much but by the end of the chorus I found that I liked the approach.

And indeed there was a great deal to like and admire about Bowen’s view of the work. He ensured that dramatic continuity was maintained and his interpretation seemed to me to combine urgency and affection. In his hands the strong sections of the work, of which there are many, came across very well. He also made most of the weaker sections sound convincing, though I do feel that the numbers between ‘Then shall the righteous’ and the final chorus are pretty dull and it was not the fault of the performers on this occasion that I found my attention wandering at this point.

Overall, this was a very convincing and committed performance, which I enjoyed very much. It was clear from the enthusiastic ovation at the end that the capacity audience felt the same. In his bicentenary year the Three Choirs Festival did Mendelssohn proud.

That was the last major concert of the 2009 Festival. The 2010 Festival moves in rotation to Gloucester, beginning on 7 August. From the preliminary details, just announced, it seems that Adrian Partington, the Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral will be offering a marvellously enticing programme for his first Three Choirs. Among the appetising prospects are Elgar’s Kingdom; a major new work, An English Requiem, by John Joubert; Intimations of Immortality (Finzi); Hymn of Jesus (Holst); Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony; and Ode on the Nativity (Parry). In 2010 it will be 100 years since the premières of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Tallis’ Fantasia – at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival – and of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Sir Roger Norrington will conduct both works in the same programme. Only a year to wait!

John Quinn


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