RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah, Op. 70 (1846) [135:58]
Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Robert Murray (tenor); Simon Keenlyside (baritone) - Elijah; Jonty Ward (treble); Susan Gilmour Bailey and Emily Rowley Jones (sopranos); Lucy Ballard and Ruth Gibbins (mezzos); Samuel Boden and Richard Rowntree (tenors); Robert Davies and William Gaunt (basses); William Whitehead (organ)
Gabrieli Consort; Wrocław Philharmonic Choir; Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme (Chetham’s Chamber Choir); North East Youth Chorale; Taplow Youth Choir; Ulster Youth Chamber Choir); Gabrieli Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 29 August - 1 September 2011, Watford Colosseum and 26 February 2012, Birmingham Town Hall. DDD
English text and Polish translation included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD300 [68:30 + 67:28]
Paul McCreesh’s Elijah comes hot on the heels of his sensational Berlioz Requiem. 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 booklet notes.
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.
Worth every bit as much praise as McCreesh’s Berlioz.
see also reviews by John Quinn (October 2012 Recording of the Month) and Michael Cookson