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
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
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
‘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
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.