The first performance of Elijah - a triumph for Mendelssohn
- took place in Birmingham Town Hall on 26 August 1846 as part
of the city’s prestigious triennial music festival. The
composer conducted and the forces involved were vast. Paul McCreesh’s
new recording, another fruit of the collaboration between the
Gabrieli Consort and Players and the Polish city of Wroclaw,
attempts to replicate the size of choir and orchestra that Mendelssohn
had at his disposal that day. However, this isn’t a reconstruction
of that première; for one thing Mendelssohn made some
revisions to the score in the light of that first performance
and the score as we know it today was given in the Exeter Hall,
London in the following April. Paul McCreesh follows that familiar
version of the score here, albeit he has made some small alterations
to the sung words.
As the size and nature of the forces involved are a key element
in this project it’s worth saying something about them.
McCreesh has assembled a large orchestra. It includes 92 strings
(24/22/20/16/10); the woodwind are doubled as are the trumpets
and the timpani but, interestingly, only four horns and three
trombones were used in the première, so those numbers
are used here also. Space is found also for two ophicleides
and a contrabass ophicleide - the only playable example in the
world of such an instrument - as well as a trio of serpents.
The numbers of players involved in the first performance can
be established from the very detailed records which were kept
of the Birmingham performance and that’s been the basis
on which McCreesh has put together his orchestra. However, not
all the instrumentalists played for Mendelssohn in the whole
oratorio that day in Birmingham. The records show that a more
conventionally-sized orchestra - involving fewer strings and
no doubled wind, trumpets or timpani - was assembled in London
and rehearsed there with the soloists before travelling to Birmingham
by train where the choir and reinforcements of local instrumentalists
were waiting to join in. This, says McCreesh, suggests a solo/ripieni
division of the orchestra was adopted for the première
so on this recording the ripieni players only join in when the
chorus sings. That sounds very sensible, the more so when one
notes the size of the choir assembled here. It’s some
300-strong and it comprises the Gabrieli Consort, adult singers
from Wroclaw and a contingent from four youth choirs involved
in the recently-established Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. By
involving young singers in this way McCreesh follows the precedent
he set a few years ago in his marvellous recording of Creation
Using a smaller band for the solo numbers means there’s
no danger of overwhelming solo singers.
There’s one more participant: the organ of Birmingham
Town Hall. Since 1846 that instrument has undergone a number
of changes and improvements. However, William Whitehead explains
in an accompanying note that he’s done a great deal of
work to replicate as closely as he can the sound that the organ
contributed to that very first performance of Elijah,
including using the instrument’s 32’ stops. It simply
wasn’t possible, for all sorts of logistical reasons,
to make the recording in Birmingham Town Hall so the organ has
been dubbed in but that’s been done very skilfully and
the sound that the organ makes justifies the effort. It adds
a magnificent depth of sound to several passages, such as the
end of the chorus that immediately precedes ‘Take all
the prophets of Baal’. Even more impressive is its presence
at the end of the chorus that concludes Part I and the organ
also makes its mark thrillingly as Elijah is taken up to heaven
in the fiery chariot and again at the very end of the work.
I’ve never been so aware of the organ part in Elijah
and it’s superb!
Anyway, that’s everyone assembled on the platform, as
it were. What sort of performance do they give?
Inevitably, a performance of Elijah stands or falls by
the singer who sings the title role. Simon Keenlyside may not
be quite as dominant a presence as, say, Bryn Terfel or Theo
Adam but I doubt he sees the role in the same way. At the very
start of the work he’s very dignified. Terfel, on his
1996 Decca set, has a bigger voice and is more emphatic, operatic
even, in his delivery. Somewhere between the two, though closer
to Keenlyside, is Sir Thomas Allen on Marriner’s 1991
Philips recording. In fact this short first passage tells you
a lot about the sort of Elijah you’re about to hear. So,
when we get to ‘Is not His word like a fire?’ Terfel
is the avenging, fiery prophet - and quite splendid in those
terms. Keenlyside is not quite as fiery but still very exciting
- and the horns make a superb contribution. Allen is, again,
closer in style and approach to Keenlyside and, like him, sings
marvellously; however, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
and Neville Marriner are nowhere near as exciting accompanists
as either Paul McCreesh’s band or the Orchestra of the
Age of Enlightenment and Paul Daniel (for Terfel). In the glorious
aria ‘Lord God of Abraham’ Thomas Allen is wonderful.
He brings real nobility to the music, singing a seamless line,
and the tone just pours out effortlessly. What a singer! Terfel
has the biggest voice of the three yet in this aria he controls
it splendidly, fining down the tone quite often and making more
use of dynamic contrasts than either of his peers. Keenlyside
is wonderfully soft and prayerful at the start, becoming more
beseeching as the aria progresses. Perhaps his performance is
the most subtle of the three.
Though it’s been interesting to make some comparisons,
each of these three fine interpreters of the role - and others
too - have their own perspectives and bring much to it. The
individual timbres of their respective voices also have a bearing
on the results. It seems to me that Simon Keenlyside emerges
with great credit from these comparisons - as I’d expect
- so putting aside comparisons, what about his overall performance?
It is, in short, very impressive indeed. There’s a definite
histrionic side to the role and Keenlyside doesn’t short-change
us but when listening to him I was reminded again and again
what a fine lieder singer he is. So, for example, in
the dialogue with the Widow, his very first phrase, “Give
me thy son”, is gentle and reassuring. That’s as
it should be - the Widow is a distressed and despairing woman
- but not every Elijah manages or attempts it. In the dramatic
scenes such as the confrontation with the Baal worshippers or
the moments that precede the end of the drought Keenlyside increases
the tension with an excellent sense of timing and dramatic pacing.
His singing of ‘It is enough’ is very fine indeed;
he judges the depth of feeling to perfection, not overdoing
things, and the central allegro section (“I have been
very jealous”) has the right amount of fire. Overall,
this is a splendid and very convincing portrayal of the prophet.
The other soloists have less to do. Robert Murray sings well;
there’s an excellent ring and brightness to his tone.
I’m not so convinced by Rosemary Joshua. She’s involved
in the music, to be sure, but for me the problem is the rather
fast vibrato that she employs almost consistently. If you listen
to Renée Fleming or Yvonne Kenny - on the Terfel and
Allen sets respectively - they also use vibrato but they control
it much better. I’m afraid Miss Joshua’s singing
is not to my taste and is a disappointment. On the other hand
Sarah Connolly is very much to my taste. ‘O rest in the
Lord’ is poised and sincere and the warm, mellow tone
of Miss Connolly’s voice gives great pleasure. She’s
just as good in ‘Woe unto them’, which she sings
with fine feeling, but she’s capable of a “nasty
streak” too. Listen to her as the Queen, when she’s
imperious and unpleasant, whipping up the feeling of the crowd
against Elijah for her own ends.
Paul McCreesh uses a team of up to eight members of the Gabrieli
Consort to sing such numbers as ‘For He shall give his
angels’ and ‘Cast they burden’. They do very
well indeed. One other singer has to be mentioned: treble
Jonty Ward. He has the small yet crucial role of the Youth near
the end of Part I and he does a really first-class job. He’s
clear and accurate and shows excellent breath control. Furthermore,
his pitching is spot-on. This must be a pressure role for a
young singer but he carries it off with aplomb.
As I mentioned, the chorus is a huge one and that pays dividends
in the big moments - the very first entry, “Help, Lord”,
is tremendously powerful and full-toned. However, what really
impresses is how flexible and responsive this large choir is.
Never once did I feel that the choir is unwieldy or too loud.
So, for example, in ‘He watching over Israel’ you’re
conscious that a big choir is singing, not least because the
tone is so satisfyingly full, but it doesn’t sound at
all heavy, not least because the tempo flows so well, and the
soft dynamics are very well managed. For me, one chorus in particular
vindicated McCreesh’s decision to use such a large choir
and, oddly, it’s not one of the more celebrated choruses.
It’s the chorus ‘Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord’
in Part II. Firstly, the contrast between the main chorus and
the four female voices who sing as Seraphs is just fabulous
- the Seraphs sing first and then the full choir entry, though
only marked forte, is magnificent. Secondly, as the chorus
progresses Mendelssohn makes great play with dynamic contrasts,
not just between the Seraphs and the main choir but between
different main choir phrases. I can’t recall ever hearing
this done so well.
The choir really comes into its own, however, in the Big Moments.
The chorus delivers ’The fire descends from heaven’
(Part I) with great vigour and yet the singers achieve marvellous
clarity. The chorus that ends Part I - ‘Thanks be to God’
- is splendidly joyful. Not only is the singing magnificent
but also the orchestra really plays its part: the bass line
of the accompaniment registers really tellingly, especially
during and after the passage that begins at “But the Lord”.
This is one of the passages where the organ is really marvellous.
I’ve never enjoyed this chorus so much. In Part II, stirred
up by Sarah Connolly’s scheming Queen, the chorus really
attacks ‘Woe to him’. Having thus tried, unsuccessfully,
to despatch Elijah in that guise the chorus later turns benevolent
and speeds him up to heaven in his chariot, McCreesh’s
tempo for this chorus may seem a little deliberate - though
amply justified by the marking Moderato maestoso - but
the power and articulation of the choral singing completely
vindicates the tempo selection. With Elijah safely in heaven,
the final chorus is hugely impressive; after a sonorous opening
the fugue is exultant.
The orchestral playing is superb and the use of period instruments,
including slide trumpets, and observance of period practices
brings out the colour and inventiveness of Mendelssohn’s
writing. Incidentally, though I don’t have perfect pitch
I think McCreesh’s orchestra plays at or very close to
modern pitch whereas the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
on their recording with Terfel plays at a lower pitch. Paul
McCreesh’s direction of the score is a great success.
Inevitably, in a work that plays for over two hours, there was
the odd moment when I wondered about a tempo selection or a
bit of phrasing - and I’m not convinced that the changes
to the words achieve a lot even if some of them are closer to
the German text - but any such moments were exceedingly minor
and of no consequence beside the conviction and sweep of the
performance as a whole.
This is a marvellous recording of Elijah. Anyone who
cares about this fine work should try to hear it. And the dramatic
approach and colourful execution should also win the work new
admirers. I think it’s as impressive achievement as McCreesh’s
recent Grande Messe des Morts (review).
The recorded sound is excellent - I wasn’t surprised to
find that largely the same engineering team was involved that
worked on that Berlioz recording - and the notes and presentation
are first class, as is becoming usual from this source. No matter
how many times you’ve heard this great mainstay of the
choral repertoire I urge you to hear this new recording. It
gave me new insights into Elijah and I hope it will do the same
for others. One final thought. I once attended a performance
of The Dream of Gerontius which was given using instruments
of Elgar’s time (review).
It was fascinating to hear the work in orchestral hues comparable
to what Elgar himself would have heard and a recording of the
work on instruments of the period would be invaluable. Two of
the soloists in this present recording - Sarah Connolly and
Robert Murray - recently excelled in a performance of Gerontius
in Birmingham (review).
Perhaps Paul McCreesh would consider recording Elgar’s
masterpiece with these two fine singers: it could be as much
of a revelation as this Elijah.