Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah - oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 70 (1846) [135:58]
Simon Keenlyside (baritone) - Elijah; Robert Murray (tenor) - Obadiah; Rosemary Joshua (soprano) - Widow; Sarah Connolly (mezzo) - Angel; Jonty Ward (treble)
Double quartet of Angels: Susan Gilmour Bailey (soprano); Emily Rowley Jones (soprano), Lucy Ballard (mezzo); Ruth Gibbins (mezzo); Samuel Boden (tenor); Richard Rowntree (tenor); Robert Davies (bass); William Gaunt (bass)
Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme: Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Choir; Wrocław Philharmonic Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
William Whitehead (organ)
rec. 29 August-1 September 2011, Watford Colosseum, England, 26 February 2012, Birmingham Town Hall, England
Sung in English with full texts included
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD300 [68:30 + 67:28]
Paul McCreesh is the artistic director of the London based Gabrieli Consort & Players that he founded in 1982. In addition McCreesh is the artistic director of the Wratislavia Cantans the International Festival of Oratorio and Cantata Music held annually in Wrocław, Poland. This Signum recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah continues the collaboration between Anglo/Polish performers that McCreesh has cultivated. On 28th August 2011 for a performance of Elijah at the BBC Proms McCreesh invited the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir over to England to augment his Gabrieli Consort & Players and other groups of choruses. The next day McCreesh took these same large forces numbering 5 vocal soloists, a chorus of 296 singers and 116 instrumental players into the Watford Colosseum spending the next four days making this recording. Another session was needed to complete the recording on the 26 February 2012 at Birmingham Town Hall.
It comes as no surprise that McCreesh has chosen to record Elijah a landmark of Mendelssohn’s oeuvre and probably the most famous oratorio of the nineteenth century. Widely acknowledged as a masterpiece Elijah is Mendelssohn’s second great oratorio and was completed just a year before his premature death in 1847. In 1845 the Birmingham Music Festival committee requested Mendelssohn to compose a new work for them. As he had done with his earlier oratorio St. Paul Mendelssohn requested the pastor Julius Schubring to prepare the texts in German. Unlike St. Paul that mainly employed New Testament texts, Mendelssohn fashioned Elijah on Old Testament texts largely from Kings I and II, depicting various events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah. The score was supplemented by texts from Psalms, Isaiah and other Old Testament writings. Mendelssohn designed Elijah in two parts each of which are based around three significant events in Elijah’s life.
The oratorio Elijah is scored for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and organ and was completed in 1846. Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance of the score in 1846 to great acclaim before a packed audience at the Birmingham Music Festival held at the Birmingham Town Hall, England. Elijah has remained a staple of choral music repertory ever since. On this Signum recording the score that conductor Paul McCreesh is using is based on a performing edition by Prof. R. Larry Todd (musicologist and Mendelssohn Biographer) published by Carus and original 19th century sources. McCreesh is using Julius Schubring’s sung texts in an English version prepared by William Bartholomew with McCreesh himself making some revisions to the wording. It was a masterstroke for McCreesh to secure the services of baritone Simon Keenlyside (Elijah) and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (Angel) both major names on the international stage. The other two soloists tenor Robert Murray (Obadiah) and soprano Rosemary Joshua (Widow) are excellent singers too but are somewhat lesser known. McCreesh’s Gabrieli Players is a period instrument orchestra. We are told in the notes that the strings have gut stringing and also of note are the English slide trumpets, and McCreesh has also tracked down 3 serpents and a rare ophicleide. I don’t have any more information about how strict McCreesh is about authenticity such as reverting to period horsehair bows and not using chin/shoulder rests on the violins/violas.
In the introduction (CD1, track 1) As God the Lord of Israel liveth Keenlyside sets the scene by communicating a sense of dark foreboding by announcing that a great drought will soon affect the people of Israel. In Elijah’s aria Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel (CD1, track 17) the fluid and expressive Keenlyside conveys a comforting quality beseeching the Lord for affirmation for his deeds to the people. Elijah’s aria Is not his word like a fire? (CD1, track 20) is a stern and unsettling warning. Here Keenlyside’s convincing tones with impressive diction adds impact to the harsh and meaningful text. Elijah’s great aria It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life (CD2, track 6) opens with highly impressive string playing creating a palpable sense of poignancy. In this moving plea to the Lord for death Keenlyside’s baritone easily copes with the low tessitura of the writing. Woe unto them who forsake him! (CD1, track 21) is a lyrical alto aria sung splendidly by Sarah Connolly. Her direct and emphatic mezzo-soprano tones convey a stark warning to those transgressors that destruction will fall upon them. With assured control Connolly as the Angel gives a moving performance of her radiant alto aria O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him (CD2, track 11). The beseeching duet between soprano and mezzo with chorus Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer! (CD1, track 4) is given a marvellous rendition of unerring reverence. I did feel here that the soprano and mezzo were a touch recessed in the sound picture. Obadiah’s aria If with all your hearts ye truly seek me (CD1, track 6) is sung by bright tenor Robert Murray with fitting piety. The tenor aria Then shall the righteous shine forth (CD2, track 20) is given a vivid and sensitive rendition by the secure Murray. Soprano Rosemary Joshua really excels as the Widow. The duet What have I to do with thee? (CD1, track 11) contains the moving ‘widow’s aria’ sung by Joshua imploring God for help as her son is dying. Joshua has a bell-like clarity to her voice that she projects so well. Part two of Elijah commences with Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh (CD2, track 1) a substantial and brilliant soprano aria. This is captivating and impressively reverential singing by the lyric soprano and another highlight of the release. Throughout I was struck by Joshua’s fluid timbre, impressive projection and flawless diction. Especially notable in the aria is her powerful delivery of the words I will strengthen thee!
Treble Jonty Ward only has a limited contribution but what he does is simply marvellous. I have come across treble Ward singing in a wonderful disc of sacred music from François Couperin on the Novum label. Chorister Ward’s voice is in tremendous order singing with a fresh and responsive quality. I was especially struck by the splendid singing from the Angels in For He shall give His Angels charge over thee (CD1, track 9) a wondrously tender and inspiring pronouncement that God has commanded the Angels to protect thee. Scored for double quartet the singers are taken from the chorus and are named as sopranos Susan Gilmour Bailey and Emily Rowley Jones; altos Lucy Ballard and Ruth Gibbins; tenors Samuel Boden and Richard Rowntree; basses Robert Davies and William Gaunt. The large chorus is in stunning form bright and resilient with singing of a striking presence. I especially enjoyed the chorus of the people voicing their anguish in Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us? (CD1, track 3). Worthy of note here is Mendelssohn’s darkly coloured orchestral writing performed with distinction by the Gabrieli Players. In Yet doth the Lord see it not (CD1, track 7) the troubled chorus of the people intone the curse motive that was heard initially in the first section of the work. At point 1:17 the chorale-like melody with the lines For he the Lord our God provides a calm and welcome glimpse of vivid blue through a dark and threatening sky. Sung with impressive unison the highly dramatic and bone-chilling chorus of the people announce Woe to him! He shall perish (CD 2, track 4). Extra weight is given to the texture by Mendelssohn’s splendid percussion writing. The chorus He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps (CD2, track 9) is given a stirring and highly satisfying performance by the impressively blended members of McCreesh’s choral forces. The forceful outburst in the final chorus And then shall your light shine forth as the light of morning breaketh (CD2, track 24) is sung to remarkable effect.
Paul McCreesh directs confidently managed performances of elevated veneration from his choral forces of 296 singers. The assured orchestral support from the Gabrieli Players comes across as light, clear with a near translucent quality; quite remarkable given that there are orchestral 116 players. McCreesh and his huge choral and orchestral forces are beautifully recorded mainly from the Watford Colosseum in 2011 and a later session in 2012 at Birmingham Town Hall. I am delighted to report that the comprehensive notes in the booklet include full English texts.
I have collected a number of recordings of Elijah and from those accounts sung in English I strongly admire the set conducted by Paul Daniel using a period instrument orchestra and featuring Bryn Terfel as Elijah. This is a performance that manages to balance thrilling drama with sufficient reverence. Released in 1997 the cast of singers include Renée Fleming (soprano); Patricia Bardon (mezzo); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone); the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on ‘London’ Decca 0289 455 6882 9. Using a German text another recommendable recording of Elijah is from Helmuth Rilling conducting the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on Brilliant Classics 99953. I love the great energy and consummate control that Rilling presides over and his cast of soloists is impressive; Christine Schäfer (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (alto); Michael Schade (tenor) and Wolfgang Schöne (baritone). Recorded in 1994 at the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Rilling’s recording has a first-rate sound quality. The disc is also coupled with an equally impressive performance conducted by Helmuth Rilling of St. Paul with the Prager Kammerchor and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (review). There is much to admire in the stunning performed 2011 account from Doris Hagel conducting the Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg and the Capella Weilburgensis on period instruments. Using a German text Hagel’s cast of soloists is Christine Wolff (soprano); Britta Schwarz (alto); Markus Schäfer (tenor) and Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone). Beautifully recorded at the Schlosskirche, Weilburg an der Lahn, Germany the set is on Profil, Edition Günter Hänssler on DCD PH12034 (review). Also on the Profil Hänssler label is Wolfgang Sawallisch’s splendid live 2001 Munich recording with a German text. Sawallisch’s superb Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir meet all the requirements needed for this marvellous oratorio. The fine cast of soloists is Michael Volle (bass); Andrea Rost (soprano); Marjana Lipovsek (alto); Herbert Lippert (tenor); Letizia Scherrer (soprano); Thomas Cooley (tenor) and Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano). Recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Hercules Hall, Munich the first class sound quality is notable containing much fine detail on Profil, Edition Günter Hänssler PH07019 (review). I have also enjoyed Philippe Herreweghe’s recording of Elijah with La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées on period instruments.Using a German text this recording from Metz in 1993 has a satisfying cast of soloists Petteri Salomaa (bass); Soile Isokoski (soprano); Monika Groop (alto) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor) on Harmonia Mundi HMC901463.64.
Congratulations are in order to all those involved in this splendidly sung and recorded release of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Signum. Paul McCreesh does sterling work in controlling his large choral and orchestral forces that number well over 400. I have no better recording of Elijah and this will certainly be a set that I will reach for again and again.
A set that I will reach for again and again.
see also review by John Quinn