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Brilliant Classics

Elias (Elijah) (1); Paulus (St. Paul) (2)
Christine Schäfer (soprano) (1)
Juliane Banse (soprano) (2)
Cornelia Kallisch (alto) (1)
Ingeborg Danz (alto) (2)
Michael Schade (tenor) (1, 2)
Wolfgang Schöne (baritone) (1)
Andreas Schmidt (bass) (2)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Prager Kammerchor (2)
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart (1)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (2)
Helmuth Rilling (conductor)
Recorded 3-7 Sept 1994, Liederhalle, Stuttgart (1); 17-19 Nov 1994 Rudolfinum Dvořák Hall, Prague (2)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99953 [4 CDs: 65.16 + 62.56 + 72.25 + 58.46]


Mendelssohn’s oratorios represent the third creative encounter between German composers and the English oratorio tradition. With ‘Elijah’ Mendelssohn successfully reinvented the Handelian oratorio for the 19th century. Not until Elgar would an English composer create a dramatic oratorio of parallel stature.

Though his English contemporaries bracketed ‘Elijah’ with Handel’s ‘Messiah’, in fact the parallels are stronger with the more dramatic Handelian oratorios which were less in favour in the Victorian period. Mendelssohn was concerned to treat a subject which gave him a strongly dramatic story. His libretto, using only text from the Bible, is not a continuous narrative. Using a technique which Handel used in some of his dramatic oratorios, Mendelssohn presents a series of vivid scenes whilst presuming on the listener’s knowledge of the Biblical original. This avoids acres of explanatory recitative and provides Mendelssohn with some dramatic juxtaposition of scenes. He was originally attracted to the subject because of the rain miracle. The text provides him with some superb set pieces.

Although it is only in the last 10 years or so that Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ has come to the fore in the recording industry, the work never really went away. The recordings by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos with Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Wolfgang Sawallisch with Theo Adam, are both testament to the work’s enduring popularity. But in the early 1980s when I sang the piece with a major London choir and orchestra, not only was it the first time that the choir had sung the work but a significant number of the singers were completely unfamiliar with it.

In this boxed set of both of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, Brilliant have re-issued the recordings conducted by Helmut Rilling in the early 1990s. In ‘Elijah’ Wolfgang Schöne sings the title role in a wonderfully dramatic manner, encompassing all the role’s varied demands. Elijah is the oratorio’s only fully-rounded character. Mendelssohn paints a vivid portrait of the man. Not only does the role call for dramatic action in the famous set-pieces but he must also show tenderness and humility and address God in quiet prayer. Schöne does all of this in fine fashion, but I found his voice rather difficult to warm to. It was only after repeated listening that I came to value his performance. Schöne’s voice has quite a pronounced vibrato and in the quieter passages lacks a sense of real legato line. This is a tricky issue in a dramatic bass role, but Bryn Terfel manages it on the recording conducted by Paul Daniel.

Singing the soprano roles is Christine Schäfer, then at the start of her career and making a brilliant showing on this recording. Like Schöne, her concept of the roles is essentially dramatic, but she turns in a beautifully reflective solo in ‘Höre, Israel’ at the opening of part 2. Alto Cornelia Kallisch is more problematic. Like many singers she is more successful in portraying the dramatic Jezebel than the more reflective Angelic roles. A greater problem is her frequent changes of register and rather plummy tones. Tenor Michael Schade has a lovely lyric voice and delivers his solos with fine style, though he is less comfortable in some of the more dramatic moments.

But the greatest virtue of this set must be Rilling’s Gächinger Kantorei. They sing brilliantly and are outstandingly dramatic in all of the work’s set-pieces, whilst providing some stunning tone in the quieter moments.

But you may want to temper my generally enthusiastic response to this performance for two reasons. Firstly it is in German. Mendelssohn would, of course, have expected the work to be performed in the language of the audience. Comprehension was important and so was Holy Writ. During the preparations for the work’s first performance in Birmingham he made adjustments to his music so that the Biblical text could be fitted without change. Though I was brought up with the work in English, personally I am happy with performances in either English or German. But this may not be to everybody’s taste.

For me, though, a bigger problem with this recording is the question of how many soloists the work needs. At his first performance, Mendelssohn had ten soloists. Whilst this might seem onerous in live performance, it is easier on record. Mendelssohn took advantage of this cast by writing extensively for vocal ensemble. The work includes two quartets, one double quartet, a trio and two duets with chorus. All but two of these numbers are assigned to the Angels, so Mendelssohn’s concept of the Angelic body has an important aural dimension. On the present recording the quartets, the double quartet and the trio are all performed by the choir. There is no doubt that they make a more ethereal sound. But if you listen to one of the recordings which use soloists rather than choir, such as Sawallisch or Daniel, the results are rather more vigorous. The vocal ensemble gives the Angels a distinctive aural character and they are rather more vigorous. For me this is a very important point, but others may disagree.

This recording of ‘Elijah’ has strong dramatic values. Where it is weaker is in the more lyrical moments. Rilling’s is a robust, essentially late 19th century view of the work and we must go to Paul Daniel for a recording which successfully combines this drama with the lyrical element important for the work’s early 19th century roots.

‘Paulus’ was Mendelssohn’s first oratorio and in many ways operates as a less successful dry run for ‘Elijah’. Whilst ‘Elijah’ can be seen as an engagement with Handelian oratorio arising out of the work’s English commission, ‘Paulus’ had purely German origins. Mendelssohn’s use of chorale (something that does not occur at all in ‘Elijah’) and recitative makes one realise that in this work he was attempting a creative engagement with Bach’s Passions. After all, Mendelssohn was responsible for the first performances of the St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death, albeit in a heavily cut and arranged version. This leads to a work which is rather less dramatic than ‘Elijah’ and more dependent on vocal quality and musical values.

‘Paulus’ opens with the episode of the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Michael Schade is stunning as Stephen, giving a wonderfully intense account of Stephen’s long dramatic recitative. Schade’s performance throughout is characterised by his vocal lyricism and beauty of tone. He seems to be far more at home here than in ‘Elijah’.

In the title role, Andreas Schmidt gives a fine performance. Again, this is not a particularly dramatic role and like Schade, Schmidt concentrates on purely musical values. This care and attention reaps great rewards and make the recording very listenable. The two female soloists are both attractive but it is soprano Juliane Banse who stands out, particularly in her rendition of "Jerusalem".

Rilling is ably served by his choir and orchestra who give strong performances and respond to his shaping. Rilling has a good feel for the work’s structure and the resulting finely shaped performance makes the most of what in other hands can be a work which is unconvincing.

This is a highly recommendable set for those who do not know Mendelssohn’s oratorios. And for those who do, the performances contain much to recommend them. In fact that of ‘Paulus’ would quite happily sit on your library shelves.

Robert Hugill

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