Elias is quite a tour de force, at least by Mendelssohn's
standards. Musically it is one of his most diverse works, and
he makes the most of every opportunity for choral counterpoint,
for elegant vocal solos, for atmospheric scene-setting; the
list is almost endless. On the other hand, the composer's discipline
is everywhere apparent, and the finely judged proportions of
the work are surely a key to its success. In fact, the oratorio
tradition in the 19th century was almost as strong
as in the 18th, yet only two works from it survive
into the modern repertoire, and both are by Mendelssohn: this
and St. Paul. To modern ears, the influence of Bach is
an interesting dimension. It was written only a few years after
Mendelssohn's rediscovery of the Matthew Passion, and the links
between the two works are undeniable, not least in Mendelssohn's
skilfully polyphonic use of the choir.
The work's continuing popularity, not least with amateurs, belies
the difficulties it poses for performers. True, Mendelssohn
has a knack for creating the maximum dramatic effect with the
minimum of technical difficulty, but he still expects a high
standard of musicianship from soloists, orchestra and choir
alike. The greatest strength of this recording is that the performers
all work to almost uniformly high standards. The MDR Radio Choir
display a unity of intent that is all too rare among large,
amateur choruses. Perhaps their numbers have been reduced to
improve the ensemble, but if so, they still manage to pack a
punch when needed.
Among the soloists, the most distinctive is the soprano Ruth
Ziesak, who brings a sense of operatic scope to the proceedings.
None of the other singers are quite as distinguished as her,
but all put in fine performances. Mendelssohn often writes for
the soloists as an ensemble, and the minimal vibrato of the
other singers allows these movements to cohere elegantly. That
said, the timbral contrast between two male soloists, the tenor
Christoph Genz and the bass Ralf Lukas, is a real benefit to
many of their duet recitatives. Genz has an unaffected purity
of tone, while Lukas has a slightly more constricted and impassioned
sound. There aren't many roles where that sort of sound production
is appropriate to the bass voice, but the title role of Elijah
is surely one of them.
If I have one complaint about the performance it is that it
lacks urgency. Jun Märkl shapes the movements well, but the
tempos are often too static and the orchestra rarely takes the
music to dynamic extremes. There is so much potential drama
in this music that is only occasionally realised by this performance.
It is as if we are presented with a rendering of the score rather
than an interpretation of the music.
The sound quality too is serviceable without ever being exceptional.
For a studio recording it is surprising how distant the choir,
orchestra and even the soloists sound. That makes for a very
homogeneous sound, so Mendelssohn's elegant harmonies are much
more in evidence than his ingenious counterpoint.
Why is this recording sung in German? Two obvious reasons spring
to mind: it was written in German and it is recorded in Germany.
But it was premièred in English (in Birmingham) and Naxos is
no doubt planning to sell this recording around the English-speaking
world. Given the label's comprehensive approach to the repertoire,
their long term plan is probably to release recordings in both
If they are planning ever to revisit this work, a performance
on period instruments would also be welcome. What a shame to
read the ophicleide part in the score and not be able to hear
it. Some narrow bore trombones would also make for more interesting
textures in many of the choral movements.
No point though in complaining about what this recording is
not. What it is is a perfectly serviceable Elijah, with
no frills in the recording nor any in the packaging. Naxos don't
go in for printing librettos, but I'm surprised they didn't
make an exception here as it would easily have fitted in the
liner. A budget price Elijah in every sense.
See also review by John