Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elias (Elijah) Op 70 [2:12:38]
Ruth Ziesak (soprano); Claudia Mahnke (mezzo); Christoph Genz (tenor); Ralf Lukas (bass-baritone); MDR Radio Choir; MDR Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. December 2008-January 2009, MDR-Studio am Augustusplatz in Leipzig, Germany: text and translation available on Naxos website
NAXOS 8.572228-9 [66:45 + 65:53]
Readers of Rev H R Haweis’ once popular and influential book on “Music and Morals” (1871) will recall his near idolisation of Mendelssohn. In praising him, however, he makes him sound an intolerable prig, in particular for his stated objections to the triviality and indecency of opera, especially French opera, and his determination to stick to the more uplifting genre of oratorio. Rev Haweis makes much of the distinction between a singer in costume pretending to be Elijah and a concert singer singing the prophet’s words.
Clearly the performers on these discs know nothing of this. They approach the work as if it were an opera of the school of Weber or Lortzing with results that are dramatic and utterly enthralling from start to finish - and for once the second part does not come as an anti-climax. The ominous chords at the start immediately portray this particularly intransigent and hairy prophet, well characterised by the imposing voice of Ralf Lukas (whose other roles include Hans Sachs and Wotan), and the main part of the Overture is given real dramatic thrust leading to the great entry of the chorus. From then on the whole work emerges in all its varied character. The soloists are well chosen, with fresh sounding voices as well as the ability to characterise all aspects of the music. The chorus are good if possibly a little heavy at times, but the real hero of the set is the orchestra which performs with the kind of clarity, energy and transparency so essential in Mendelssohn. I suspect that much of this is down to the conductor, Jun Märkl, who sets tempi that feel just right. For once the concluding chorus to Part 1 (“Thanks be to God” in Bartholomew’s translation) avoids sounding like a descent into banality as too often is the case, and the imaginatively scored accompaniments to “O rest in the Lord” and “Hear ye, Israel” make their full effect.
Not everything is perfect. The chorus seem to have been recorded in a more resonant acoustic than the orchestra or soloists and the gaps between movements are sometimes marginally longer than is desirable, but these are minor defects. It is regrettable that a libretto is not included but this can be accessed from the Naxos website if you do not already have one.
Given the current fashion for staging oratorios and other sacred works it is surprising that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has tried this with Elias. After hearing this set directors may be tempted, but I would be surprised if the result could be any more effective as drama than listening to this set. Whatever Mendelssohn’s views on opera were as an adult (he wrote several as a teenager) “Elias” is every bit as dramatic as most of the operas of his contemporaries and this set brings out that drama to the full.
“Elias” is every bit as dramatic as most of the operas of his contemporaries and this set brings out that drama to the full.