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 amd 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; Wroclaw 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]
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 (review). 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.
A marvellous recording of Elijah.