In 1837 Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul
was performed at the Birmingham Musical Festival
review of the Hickox/Chandos recording
). It was enthusiastically received and eight years later the Festival committee contacted the composer and commissioned him to write a new oratorio for the next year.
Mendelssohn had contemplated a new oratorio, why not Elijah
, immediately after the success of St. Paul
and even worked out a libretto, first together with his friend Carl Klingemann and later Pastor Schubring, another old friend. He wrote very little of the music until he got the request from Birmingham. It was written in German but with the help of William Bartholomew was translated into English.
At the premiere, which took place on 26 August 1846, Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere, had a choir of two hundred and seventy-one and an orchestra of one hundred and twenty-five. The performance was a great success. “Never was there a more complete triumph”, wrote The Times
. Even so, Mendelssohn wasn’t quite satisfied and reworked it substantially for the first London performance in April the following year. That is the version we hear today.
The present recording, made in April 1989 is part of Chandos series “The Hickox Legacy” (reviews
) in memoriam of the extremely gifted, versatile and hard-working Richard Hickox, who suddenly passed away at the age of sixty, due to a dissecting thoracic aneurysm in 2008. Choral music was close to his heart. I have fond memories of him conducting Rossini’s Stabat Mater
at the Barbican on the day of the composer’s 200th
anniversary, 29 February 1992. This recording, set down three years before that event, is further proof of his excellence in the choral repertoire; he recorded the Stabat Mater
too, and that recording has also been reissued in this series (reviews
There are in this oratorio two protagonists, the title character Elijah, the prophet, and the Israelite people, represented by the chorus. In that respect Mendelssohn was obviously influenced by Handel, several of whose oratorios he had conducted. There is a wealth of richly textured choruses in Elijah. Blessed are the men who fear him
(CD 1 tr. 11) and the two final choruses of part I and part II, mighty, powerful and jubilant, are only the pick. The London Symphony Chorus certainly live up to their reputation as one of the best choirs in the UK. There is bite in the fortes, no loss of sonority in the soft singing and an overall homogenous sound. Incidentally they won a Grand Prix du Disque and The Gramophone’s Award for Best Choral Recording with Hickox and the LSO for the Chandos recording of Britten's War Requiem
in 1991. Hickox certainly has the measure of this work and a slight slackening of intensity in a few places is more Mendelssohn’s fault than Hickox’s.
There is also an impressive quartet of soloists — quintet if we count the superb treble Jeremy Budd’s short but important contribution as The Youth.
As Elijah, Willard White is magisterial, dark, authoritative but also warm and nuanced. Lord God of Abraham
(CD 1 tr. 16) is noble and beautiful. Is not His word like a fire
(CD 1 tr. 19) is one of the dramatic high-spots and White is magnificent. There may be some rough edges and intonation is not always spot-on but by and large his is a great reading.
Arthur Davies is rather stiff in his delivery, but he has a good voice and makes amends with his aria near the end of the work, Then shall the righteous shine forth
(CD 2 tr. 19). Rosalind Plowright sings lyrically and with beauty and shines in the scene with Elijah and the Widow (CD 1 tr. 10); even more in the aria that opens part II, Hear ye, Israel; hear what the Lord speaketh
CD 2 tr. 1). Linda Finnie’s warm contralto is a true asset in this recording. The arioso Woe unto them who forsake Him!
(CD 1 tr. 20) is sung inwardly and with real allure and so is the Angel’s aria in the second part: O rest in the Lord
(CD 2 tr. 11) – possibly the best known number in the oratorio. Maybe she doesn’t quite challenge Janet Baker but it is a fine reading even so.
There is a plethora of recordings of Elijah
, both in English and German, and I have only heard a few of them. My favourite has been the EMI Classics recording under Frühbeck de Burgos which boasts a stellar cast: the young Gwyneth Jones, Dame Janet Baker, Nicolaï Gedda and in the title role, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There is an extra frisson in the singing of these stars and even though the recording is from the late 1960s it can still compete sonically. It is available at budget price but there is no doubt that Hickox is a worthy alternative.
A safe buy in a crowded field.