Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah - oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 70 (1846)
Christine Wolff (soprano) - the Widow
Britta Schwarz (alto) - an Angel
Markus Schäfer (tenor) - Obadiah
Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone) - as Elijah
Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg,
Capella Weilburgensis/Doris Hagel
rec. 9-14 November 2011, Schlosskirche, Weilburg an der Lahn, Germany
Full texts provided in German with English translations
PROFIL EDITION PH12034 [65:40 + 64:57]
Elijah (Elias in German) is one of the pinnacles of Mendelssohn’s
output and is probably the most famous of all nineteenth century oratorios.
It’s his oratorio, a late work completed in 1846 just a year before the
composer’s untimely death. As he had done with his earlier oratorio St.
Paul (Paulus in German)Mendelssohn requested that the theologian
pastor Julius Schubring assist him in preparing the text. Mendelssohn fashioned
Elijah from Old Testament texts largely from the first book of Kings
based around significant events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah.
Designed in two parts the score was supplemented by texts from Kings II, Psalms,
Isaiah and other Old Testament writings.
Mendelssohn himself conducted the première to great acclaim before a
packed audience at the Music Festival held at the Birmingham Town Hall in England.
A score much loved by audiences and choral societies alike it has remained a
staple of the choral music repertory. For this recording the sound quality is
excellent and the Profil label is to be congratulated for providing full German
texts with an English translation.
Doris Hagel has since 1986 held the position of cantor at the Weilburger Schlosskirche.
The German town of Weilburg is located roughly between Cologne and Frankfurt.
Hagel and lutenist Lutz Kirchhof were responsible for creating the concert series
‘Alte Musik im Weilburger Schloss’ of which Hagel is artistic director
and manager. Founded in 1992 the ensemble Capella Weilburgensis come together
at the invitation of Hagel to perform sacred choral music at the Weilburg festival
series or for special projects. Notably they play on period instruments employing
period-informed performance practice. The Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg
specialise in sacred choral music singing throughout the main feasts of the
church year. They have become known for their impressive performances of oratorios.
In addition to their unaccompanied choral work the choir collaborate closely
with the Capella Weilburgensis and L'arpa festante Munich orchestras.
The desolate mood of the brass-laden Overture commands the attention
and pertinently reflects the suffering of the drought-stricken Israelites. Splendidly
sung by the Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg the chorus proclaim their anguish:
Hilf, Herr! Hilf, Herr! (Help, Lord! Help, Lord!. Worthy of special
note is Mendelssohn’s darkly coloured orchestral writing here played with
No.2 Herr, höre unser Gebet! (Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!)
includes a beseeching duet Zion streckt ihre Hände aus (Zion
spreadeth her hands for aid) between two Israelites sung by soprano Christine
Wolff and alto Britta Schwarz. The two soloists together with the Schlosskirche
choir sing with a sure sense of piety and untarnished harmony. Obadiah’s
aria in No.4 So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet (If with all your
hearts ye truly seek me) is sung by tenor Markus Schäfer with clear
diction and appropriate reverence. Scored for double quartet the Angels sing
Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir (For he shall
given his Angels charge over thee) (No. 7). This is a wondrously tender
and inspiring pronouncement that God has commanded the Angels to “protect
thee”. No.8 Was hast du an mir getan, du Mann Gottes! (What
have I to do with thee? O man of God?) contains the affecting widow’s
aria. This is sung by soprano Christine Wolff imploring God to help her dying
son. Wolff is radiant of voice and she projects magnificently. Giving reverential
attention to the text Klaus Mertens as Elijah makes a moving request to a compassionate
God to help the widow’s son. In their duet proper at 6:18 Wolff’s
and Mertens’ voices combine in the words Von ganzer Seele (with
all my soul) - all inspiring devotional intensity. In the memorable No.
11 Baal, erhöre uns! (Baal, we cry to thee)with the
people of Israel appealing to God for a response the Kantorei der Schlosskirche
sing with fervour yet maintain a fine unison. Elijah’s admonition aria
No.14 Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels (Lord God of Abraham,
Isaac and Israel) has a certain consoling quality. With his expressive bass-baritone
and striking enunciation Klaus Mertens beseeches the Lord for affirmation for
his deeds on behalf of the Israelites. No.17 Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie
ein Feuer? (Is not his word like a fire?) is sometimes known as Elijah’s
rage aria. Here the rich and assuring tones of Klaus Mertens with his clear
diction serve to accentuate Elijah’s stern and unsettling warning. A lyrical
arioso No.18 Weh ihnen, daß sie von mir weichen! (Woe
unto them who forsake him!) is a stark warning to transgressors that destruction
will fall upon them. It is beautifully sung by alto Britta Schwarz. With highly
appealing timbre Schwarz’s compelling and resounding tones are suffused
Part 2 commences with section No.21 Höre, Israel, höre des Herren
Stimme! (Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh). This is a
substantial and brilliant soprano aria written by the composer with Jenny Lind
‘the Swedish Nightingale’ in mind. Here we find magnificently reverential
singing from Christine Wolff - a real highlight of this release. Throughout
I was struck by Wolff’s agreeable and extremely bright tone together with
her splendid projection and diction. At 3:00 I especially enjoyed her assured
delivery of the text Ich stärke dich! (I will strengthen thee!).
The renowned aria No.26 Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele
(It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life) is Elijah’s movingly
sung plea to the Lord for death. The tessitura of the writing admirably suits
Klaus Mertens marvellous bass-baritone voice. Another well known section is
No.28 Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen (Lift thine eyes to the mountain)
for the trio of Angels. We are treated to quite delightful singing from the
sopranos Elke Rehwald-Stahl and Almut Diemer, and alto Dorothée Zimmermann;
I assume that they are members of the choir. Another highlight follows with
Britta Schwarz as the Angel in No.31 Sei stille dem Herrn und warte auf ihn
(O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him). Schwarz is mightily impressive
and gives a smoothly expressive and marvellously controlled account of her radiant
alto aria. Also notable is the long lyrical line of bass-baritone Klaus Mertens
as Elijah in the arioso No.37 Ja es sollen wohl Berge weichen
(For the mountains shall depart). Weaving in and out of the vocal line
the solo oboe obbligato adds significantly to the appeal. The tenor aria
No.39 Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten (Then shall the righteous
shine forth) is given a comforting rendition by Markus Schäfer. His
fluid and attractive tenor seems perfect for the part. An extended dramatic
outburst opens No.41. From 3:44 the section of the quartet Wohlan alle, die
ihr durstig seid (O come everyone that thirsteth) begins with the
superb Wolff then followed in turn by Britta Schwarz, Markus Schäfer and
Klaus Mertens. There is outstanding interplay between the skilfully controlled
quartet of voices who pay appropriate attention to the sacred text. Movement
No.42 Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen (And then shall your light
break forth) closes the oratorio. I found the mighty dramatic outburst from
the Weilburg choir simply stunning. Hagel directs with assurance, at a beautiful
pace and with appropriate reverence. The choir and orchestra are in immaculate
form and can stand comparison with the finest.
Rubbing shoulders with this 2011 recording using period instruments is my other
first choice conducted by Frieder Bernius with the Kammerchor Stuttgart and
Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart on Carus (SACD) 83.215. Bernius’s control
is memroable and often exhilarating. The soloists Letizia Scherer (soprano),
Renée Morloc (alto), Werner Güra (tenor) and Michael Volle (bass)
are well chosen. This is fresh and responsive singing informed by a sense of
devotion. Bernius recorded the oratorio in 2007 in the sympathetic and clear
acoustic of the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Schwaigern, Germany. An English translation
of the German text is provided together with an exemplary English essay from
eminent Mendelssohn biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd. Bernius’s double set
is the final volume in a twelve volume Carus collection of Mendelssohn’s
Complete Sacred Choral Music (review).
Also on Profil is Wolfgang Sawallisch’s splendid live 2001 Munich recording.
Sawallisch’s superb Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir meet all the requirements
for this marvellous oratorio. The fine cast of soloists are Michael Volle (bass),
Andrea Rost (soprano), Marjana Lipovsek (alto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Letizia
Scherrer (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor) and Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano).
Recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Herkulessaal, Munich, the first class
sound quality impresses with much fine detail and well judged balance (Edition
Günter Hänssler PH07019 - review).
For those wanting a recording sung in English I can recommend the account conducted
by Paul Daniel using the period instrument forces of the Orchestra of the Age
of Enlightenment and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. An added attraction for
many is distinguished bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the role of Elijah. Clearly
dividing opinion Daniel’s account emphasises more of the dramatic element
and is not quite as reverential as many other versions. Released in 1997 Daniel’s
cast also includes Renée Fleming (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo) and
John Mark Ainsley (tenor). It’s on Decca London 455 688-2.
In summary, Doris Hagel directs a highly desirable account of Mendelssohn’s
A highly desirable account.