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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah - oratorio for four soloists, SATB choir, orchestra and organ, Op. 70 (1846) [121:08]
Michael Volle (bass), Andrea Rost (soprano), Marjana Lipovsek (alto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Letizia Scherrer (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano)
Bavarian Radio Choir,
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. live 12 July 2001, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
No texts provided
HäNSSLER PROFIL PH07019 [60:47 + 60:21]

Experience Classicsonline

Elijah is considered one of the pinnacles of Mendelssohn’s output; probably the most famous of all nineteenth century oratorios. It was Mendelssohn’s second great oratorio and was completed just a year before his untimely death. He had struggled with the idea of writing an oratorio on the subject for around a decade. The main inspiration came in 1845 when the Birmingham Music Festival committee commissioned him. As he had done with the earlier oratorio St. Paul Mendelssohn requested that pastor Julius Schubring assist him in preparing the text. They fashioned Elijah from Old Testament texts largely from Kings I and II, depicting various events in the life of the Biblical prophet. The score was supplemented by texts from the Psalms, Isaiah and other Old Testament writings.

Edward Dannreuther, the German pianist and musicologist provided a splendid assessment of Elijah: “The secret of the greater success - especially in England – of the later oratorio, Elijah, lies in its dramatic scheme, and in the enhanced opportunities for solo and concerted music which it afforded the composer. In Elijah, Mendelssohn exhibits his talent at full maturity. … Taken as a whole and compared with St. Paul, Elijah stands on a higher plane. It is stronger in spirit, freer, broader, more direct, and less tinged with Lutheran influences.” (Oxford History of Music, Vol. VI, ‘The Romantic Period’ by Edward Dannreuther. Pub: Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905) pg. 158.

Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance in 1846 to great acclaim before a packed audience at the Birmingham Music Festival held at the Birmingham Town Hall. It has remained a staple of the choral music repertory ever since.

Renowned Munich-born conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch uses German texts. In Part 1 the introduction So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels, lebet (As God the Lord of Israel liveth) is prefaced by a recitative for the bass role of Elijah here assumed by Michael Volle. For worshipping Baal the curse of a drought will afflict the people of Israel. The Overture in the form of a fugue has a desolate mood that pertinently reflects the suffering of the people. Giving an excellent account of themselves are the Bavarian Radio Choir: Hilf, Herr! Hilf, Herr! (Help, Lord! Help, Lord!). Worthy of special note is the darkly-coloured orchestral writing here performed with distinction. No.2 Herr, höre unser Gebet! (Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!) includes a beseeching duet Zion streckt ihre Hände aus (Zion speadeth her hands for aid) between lyric soprano Andrea Rost and mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek in the alto role. Together with the chorus they sing with reverence and unblemished harmony. Obadiah’s aria in No.4 So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet (If with all your hearts ye truly seek me) is sung by tenor Herbert Lippert appropriately devout and with clear enunciation.

The troubled chorus of the people in No.5 Aber der Herr sieht es nicht (Yet doth the Lord see it not) sing the curse motif that was heard initially in the first section of the work. At 1:24 the chorale-like melody with the lines Und tue Barmherzigkeit (His mercies on thousands fall) from the choir provide a peaceful and welcome glimpse of blue sky through dark and threatening clouds. Scored for double quartet in No.7 the Angels sing Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir (For he shall given his Angels charge over thee). This is a wondrously tender and inspiring pronouncement that God has commanded the Angels “to protect thee”. No.8 Was hast du an mir getan, du Mann Gottes! (What have I to do with thee? O man of God?) contains the moving widow’s aria sung by soprano Andrea Rost imploring God to help her dying son. I was impressed by Rost’s light, glowing voice so splendidly projected. With respectful affection for the text Michael Volle as Elijah makes a moving request to a compassionate God to help his widow’s son. In their duet at 5:41 Rost and Volle’s voices finally come together with the words von ganzer Seele (With all my soul) to create an inspiring devotional intensity.

For No.9, the reflective Wohl dem, der den Herrn fürchtet (Blessed are the men who fear him), the Bavarian choir perform with wonderful unity and assurance, acclaiming God’s grace, compassion and righteousness. Elijah’s aria No.14 Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels (Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel) has a consoling quality with Volle’s rich and expressive bass beseeching the Lord for affirmation for his deeds to the people. The SATB quartet in No.15 Wirf dein Anliegen auf den Herrn (Cast thy burden upon the Lord) is a beautiful chorale. A restful and cordial mood prevails as the quartet proclaims that the Lord will never allow the righteous to fall. Elijah’s aria No.17 is a stern and unsettling warning Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer (Is not his word like a fire?). Volle’s rich convincing tones with crystal clear enunciation adds to the powerful meaning of the text. No.18 Weh ihnen, daß sie von mir weichen! (Woe unto them who forsake him!) is a lyrical arioso for alto sung by Marjana Lipovsek. Not the most beautiful of timbres but nevertheless most compelling, her resounding tones are heavy with pathos and provide a stark warning to transgressors that destruction will fall upon them. With the inundation approaching quickly in No.19 the Bavarian Radio choir joyously portray the chorus of the people offering enormous gratitude Dank sei dir Gott, du tränkest das durst'ge Land (Thanks be to God. He laveth the thirsty land).

Part 2 of Elijah commences with No.21 Höre, Israel, höre des Herren Stimme! (Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh) a substantial and brilliant soprano aria. This is magnificent reverential singing from Andrea Rost and her aria is a highlight of the release. Throughout I was struck by Rost’s pleasingly bright tone, impressive projection and diction. I especially enjoyed her delightful and praiseworthy delivery of the text Ich stärke dich! (I will strengthen thee!). In No.22 the stirring chorus Fürchte dich nicht, spricht unser Gott (Be not afraid, saith God the Lord) is delivered with a fervent sacred conviction by Sawallisch’s Bavarian choir. Dramatic and chilling, the chorus of the people announce in No.24 Wehe ihm, er muß sterben! (Woe to him! He shall perish). Here extra weight is given by the splendid percussion writing. The great aria No.26 Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele (It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life) is Elijah’s movingly sung plea to the Lord for death. The tessitura of the writing seems to suit Volle’s very fine bass voice perfectly.

Another highpoint is the trio of Angels comprising sopranos Rost and Letizia Scherrer and alto Lipovsek in No.28 Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen (Lift thine eyes to the mountain). This is heavenly singing. I was struck by the reverence of their beautiful rendition of Deine Hilfe kommt vom Herrn (Thy help cometh from the Lord). An inspiring and fulfilling performance of Siehe, der Hüter Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht (He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps) is given by the impeccably blended members of the Bavarian Radio Choir. Lipovsek as the Angel in No.31 Sei stille dem Herrn und warte auf ihn (O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him) is expressive and well controlled in this radiant aria. The quartet of female soloists excel in No.35 Heilig, heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth (Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord, the Lord Sabaoth). Combining unity and focus the quartet, chorus and orchestra are expertly blended. I liked the conspicuous trumpet part which provides additional colour.

Highly impressive was the long lyrical line of bass soloist Michael Volle in No.37 Ja es sollen wohl Berge weichen (For the mountains shall depart). Weaving in and out of the line the obbligato solo oboe added to the poignancy. The tenor aria No.39 Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten wie die Sonne in ihres Vaters Reich (Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in their heavenly Father’s realm) is given a glowing and pleasing rendition by Herbert Lippert. He is a tenor whose incisive voice just grows and grows on the listener. In No.41 the section from point 3:13 for the quartet Wohlan alle, die ihr durstig seid (O come everyone that thirsteth) of Volle (bass), Rost (soprano), Lipovsek (alto) and Lippert (tenor). There is magnificent interplay within the quartet, skilfully controlled and always aware of the appropriate degree of reverence. Movement No.42 Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen wie die Morgenröte (And then shall your light break forth as the light of morning breaketh) closes the work. The powerful choral outburst from the Bavarian choir is simply stunning. Sawallisch directs effortlessly managed singing of towering veneration. There’s dramatic playing from choir and orchestra. The slowly burning applause at the score’s conclusion adds to the atmosphere.

My first choice version of Elijah using a German text is conducted by Frieder Bernius with the Kammerchor Stuttgart and Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart on Carus (SACD) 83.215. Bernius’s control over his choral and orchestral forces is impressive and often exhilarating. Soloists: Letizia Scherer (soprano), Renée Morloc (alto), Werner Güra (tenor) and as in the earlier Sawallisch account Michael Volle (bass) are well chosen providing fresh and responsive singing that is suitably reverential. Bernius recorded the oratorio in 2007 in the sympathetic and clear acoustic of the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Schwaigern, Germany. More good news is that an English translation of the German text is provided together with an exemplary English essay from eminent Mendelssohn biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd. Bernius’s double set is the final volume in the Carus label’s admirable twelve volume collection of Mendelssohn’s Complete Sacred Choral Music (review).

I also greatly admire the recording of Elijah using a German text from Helmuth Rilling conducting the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on Brilliant Classics 99953. I love Rilling’s great energy and consummate control and his list of soloists impresses: Christine Schäfer (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (alto); Michael Schade (tenor) and Wolfgang Schöne (baritone). Recorded in 1994 at the Liederhalle, Stuttgart the recording has first-rate sound. This outstanding bargain Elijah is also coupled on the set with Rilling’s fine St. Paul.

I have gained much enjoyment from Philippe Herreweghe’s version of Elijah on period instruments with La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent and Orch. des Champs Elysées. Using a German text this recording from Metz in 1993 has a pleasing cast: Petteri Salomaa (bass), Soile Isokoski (soprano), Monika Groop (alto) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor). It’s on Harmonia Mundi HMC901463/64.

For those wanting a version of Elijah sung in English I can highly recommended the account conducted by Paul Daniel using a period instrument orchestra and ‘starring’ Bryn Terfel as Elijah. Probably more dramatic then reverential, the recording has been described by Alan Blyth as, “one of the most dramatic performances of the oratorio on disc, operatic in the best sense of the word.” Released in 1997 the cast comprises Renée Fleming (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It’s on London Decca 455 688-2.

For me Sawallisch’s live recording on Profil with his well chosen soloists and superb Bavarian forces meets all the requirements needed for this marvellous oratorio. The sound quality is first class. The detail that I could hear was remarkable and I found the balance across the large forces extremely satisfying. The booklet is mainly in German and there are no texts provided. There is however an essay in English. I am delighted to have this Sawallisch release of Elijah in my collection and I will play it often.

Michael Cookson






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