Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah, Op.70 (sung in German) [109.45]
Helen Donath (soprano), Jard van Nes (contralto), Donald George (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass), Kerstin Klein (girl soprano)
Leipzig MDR Choir, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Frederic R Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, 7-11 January 1992
WARNER APEX 2564 659391 [54.27 + 55.18]
For forty years or more we have always been told that this or that latest recording of Elijah has rescued it from the travails of the Victorian oratorio tradition and given us the work restored as a dramatic masterpiece of the sort that Mendelssohn himself clearly wanted. In fact it is difficult to inject much drama into some parts of the oratorio, although scenes like the encounter with the priests of Baal have always packed a histrionic punch even in performances that adhered to the supposedly bloated traditions of conductors like Sir Malcolm Sargent. Not that there is any suspicion of fat Victorianism in Masur’s account of the score: it’s lithe, lean and classically mean. It propels itself along at quite a lick - sometimes considerably faster than Mendelssohn’s often surprisingly slow metronome marks. Pauses between movements are kept to a bare minimum, so that the momentum is not lost. There is only one section where Masur is surprisingly heavy-handed - the final appeal of the priests to Baal, which is decidedly slower than Mendelssohn’s Presto.
Masur’s generally speedy traversal is however not an unmixed blessing. Time and again one gets the sense that the singers are being hustled, not allowed to relax or take full advantage of the text. Alasdair Miles is the principal victim: his Elijah sounds a bit harassed and petulant, rather than thundering out anathemas on his sinful compatriots. He also sounds hassled rather than sorrowful in Is est genug. Similarly Donald George in his opening aria is not allowed room to expand into the lyrical phrases, and his tone lacks warmth in consequence. Jard van Nes is similarly handicapped in her two slow arias, and only Helen Donath sounds totally at ease although her tone is not ideally full for the dramatic declamations of Höre, Israel. The chorus, on the other hand, rejoice in Masur’s tempi, relishing the rhythmic punch; and the soloists who perform Mendelssohn’s quartets and double quartets - presumably drawn from the chorus - are perky and clear. By the way, there is an English tradition of performing these passages with full or semi-chorus, which is not what Mendelssohn specifies in the score but which seems to have been established at a very early date. However in the chorus Heilig, heilig the soloists here are too forward to maintain the best balance, and the use of a semi-chorus would really have been preferable. One must also mention Kerstin Klein, whose piping ‘boy’ is pleasurably heard and who is not strained by her final high A like so many boy trebles.
God knows one doesn’t want to return to the days - unhappily not yet gone - when Elijah was given a plodding performance at marmoreal speeds, but one has to say that Masur’s intentional classicism is equally disastrous in watering down the dramatic effects that Mendelssohn clearly wanted. He enthused about the “vigorous” first performance in Birmingham, but too often here vigour is exactly what is missing. One example will suffice. In the soprano recitative which precedes God’s appearance to Elijah on the mountain, Mendelssohn carefully marks the detached string chords tenuto. He clearly wanted a solemn approach to the music here, not simply short chords as in a ‘normal’ recitative accompaniment. Masur takes no notice whatsoever of the tenuto marking, and a straightforward recitative is therefore just what we get. At the end of the dramatic chorus Jard van Nes is given absolutely no opportunity to sound awestruck at the approach of the Almighty - just listen to Janet Baker in this passage to see what is missing.
The set is cleanly played by the Israel Philharmonic, who clearly articulate all their fast-running passages even at Masur’s sometimes hectic speeds. The booklet states that the performance is a ‘live recording’ but there is no evidence of any audience, not even applause at the end - and the fact that the recording sessions are shown as extending over five days would suggest that some patching sessions were employed, even if there is no obvious sign of this. The presentation of the booklet, however, is a miserable matter. We are given just a list of tracks with the titles in German, but untranslated - and no indication of what is happening in the music, and no information about the work itself either. This is not good enough even for a bargain reissue. The Penguin Guide states that the previous Warner Apex issue of this recording included texts and translations - what has happened to them?
If you want a crisp modern recording of Elijah in Mendelssohn’s original German - although the first performance was given in an English translation supervised by the composer - this may well be a satisfactory bargain; but be prepared do some homework to supply yourself with the text and translation. Otherwise, if you want a German-language Elias, I would suggest Helmut Rilling’s similarly classical but less rushed and more telling version on Hänssler. If you can find it in yourself to like Theo Adam’s sometimes rough-hewn prophet more than I do, Sawallisch’s vintage version on Philips should also fit the bill. There are also quite a few recommendable English-language versions, although none as cheap as this Apex reissue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
If you want a crisp modern Elijah in Mendelssohn’s original German this may well be a satisfactory bargain.
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