Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Elias (Elijah) Oratorio Op 70 [123:01]
Claudia Barainsky (soprano); Franziska Gottwald (alto); Rainer Trost (tenor); Thomas E Bauer (bass)
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering
rec. Philharmonie Essen, 28-29 November 2009
text and English translation included
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 602 1656-2 [61:47 + 61:14]
I very much enjoyed the recent Naxos issue of Elias conducted by Jun Märkl, in particular because of its dramatic thrust and the quality of its soloists. How good to be able to welcome another fine new recording of the work, again one which takes the composer’s intentions seriously and above all freshly. The present version goes even further in some respects by using an orchestra specializing in historically informed performance. Very properly we have an ophicleide instead of a tuba or bass trombone and the timpanist must have worn out several pairs of hard sticks in his very audible enthusiasm. The choir of about eighty sing with great clarity and fervour where needed but also with great beauty and indeed variety of tone. The various smaller ensembles sometimes sung by a semi-chorus are sung here by a mixture of the soloists and members of the choir and form some of the loveliest moments of the performance.
The booklet contains a pugnacious essay by Norbert Bolin championing the performance and pointing out the benefits of adherence to Mendelssohn’s metronome marks. This does indeed have beneficial effects although it is hardly as unusual in modern performances as he suggests. The resulting drive adds to the drama and helps provide a greater contrast with the more reflective parts of the score. The increasing desperation of the followers of Baal for instance is very vivid if they are allowed to start at a suitably moderate speed and to end at a furious pace. The booklet states that the ritardando at the end of “Then did Elijah the prophet” is the only one explicitly marked in the work. This is incorrect but it is certainly the only one at the very end of a movement, and the resulting sudden changes of gear between movements is very effective, for instance at the end of the Overture or before “Be not afraid” (in the usual translation). The scoring is projected with real character; the string semiquavers in “The waters gather” for instance paint a real picture of rushing water and the cello melody in “It is enough” is phrased with wonderful tenderness.
I am not so convinced by the contributions of the soloists. Rainer Trost is the best of them, singing with beautiful tone and alive to the different characters of his roles Thomas E. Bauer sings beautifully “It is enough” and similar passages, but lacks the fierceness, roughness even, that the role of this particularly intransigent, even unpleasant, prophet ideally requires. The two female soloists are less good. Claudia Barainsky is another who distinguishes well between the various characters she depicts but her vibrato can be obtrusive at times. Franziska Gottwald is competent but uninteresting.
The sleeve includes the word “live” but there is no audible sound of an audience or any other indications of a live performance apart from the vigour and concentration which are there in abundance. This is a recording of real distinction and on balance I prefer it to the Naxos version although I shall certainly return to the latter for its superior soloists and even greater sense of drama.
One minor point. I have been looking at the programme for the very first performance of the work in Birmingham Town Hall on the morning of 26 August 1846. It was succeeded after a five minute break by arias by Mozart and Cimarosa and Handel’s “The King shall rejoice”. What enviable musical stamina performers and audiences had in those days!
Another fine new recording of Elias, again one which takes the composer’s intentions seriously and above all freshly.