Paul McCreesh’s Elijah comes
hot on the heels of his sensational Berlioz
It’s the second fruit of his collaboration with Poland’s
Wratislavia Cantans Festival, and it’s every bit as successful.
As with the Berlioz, McCreesh has gone in pursuit of authenticity,
but his approach is a world away from the pared down sound-world
that we tend to associate with “period” performers.
When Mendelssohn premiered Elijah in Birmingham in 1846,
he was operating in a musical world that was unafraid of embracing
the large scale, so McCreesh has decided to re-create one of
those larger than life Victorian musical extravaganzas, and
deploys the enormous forces of around 400 musicians to bring
Elijah to startling, exhilarating life.
The recording was made in the Watford studio (with the sound
of the Birmingham Town Hall organ dubbed on, most effectively,
afterwards) after the same group of forces gave the work at
the Proms in 2011, and the results are a dazzling revelation.
The power of the sound that the full orchestra and chorus produce
when operating together is extraordinary. The first entry of
the chorus in part one, coming as it does after a well paced
and securely built-up overture, is hair-raising! The critic
for The Times described the Proms performance as “a
wall of sound of thunderous depth that almost knocked you over”,
and you can hear why! The massed chorus cover themselves in
glory at every turn. The big set-piece choruses like the conclusion
to Part One, or Part Two’s Be Not Afraid, are fantastic.
However, they are also used with biting intelligence to accentuate
the drama, such as God’s appearance to Elijah in Part
Two or, when Elijah announces the contest in Part One, at the
line “and then we shall see whose God is the Lord”.
This rises and swells with an emotional fervour that can bring
a lump to the throat. When I first began to listen I found the
English text a little difficult to make out, but before long
I found it pretty easy to follow almost every word. McCreesh
supplements his two principal choruses - the Gabrieli Consort
and Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir - with a collection of youth
choruses which spice up the texture and lend a special texture
to the sound. This is movingly written about in the excellent
McCreesh turns his customary period scholarship to the forces
of the orchestra too, using rare instruments such as ophicleides,
slide trumpets, serpents and tower drums to enrich the orchestral
texture. For all their vast size, the orchestra never feels
unwieldy or cumbersome; instead it is remarkable just how flexible,
even transparent at times the texture can sound. The strings,
employing gut instruments without vibrato, are especially strong,
evidenced nowhere more brilliantly than in their wilting, mournful
accompaniment to Elijah’s Part Two aria, “It is
enough”. The brass and percussion are also sensational
in the big climaxes. McCreesh welds the whole ensemble together
with the focus and sheer conviction that carries the whole project.
The soloists are also top drawer. Simon Keenlyside is a poetic,
troubled Elijah, very unlike the grizzled hermit embodied by
Bryn Terfel on Decca. He is powerfully moving during the crisis
of Part Two, but even in the dramatic moments, such as the confrontation
with the prophets of Baal, there is profound lyricism in his
singing which I found entirely convincing. He sings “It
is enough” with such wonderful poignancy. The accompaniment
from a solo oboe is sensational. He is partnered by appropriately
heavenly sounding female soloists. Rosemary Joshua is particularly
thrilling. Her bright soprano is put to ethereal use in Part
Two and blends wonderfully with Sarah Connolly in the duets
and trios. Connolly herself uses her lovely mezzo to great effect,
contrasting effectively with her colleagues. Her finest moment
is in “Woe unto them” at the end of Part One, pouring
down balm after the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. We don’t
get to hear much of Robert Murray, but his contribution is clean
and focused, especially in “If with all your hearts”.
I could go on, and I direct readers to John Quinn’s thorough
review of the same set for more, but I finish where I started
by saying that this is worth every bit as much praise as McCreesh’s
Berlioz. Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come.
see also reviews by John
Quinn (October 2012 Recording of the Month) and