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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elias (Elijah), Op.70 (sung in German) [129.12]
Yorck Felix Speer (bass), Katherina Müller (soprano), Yvi Jänicke (contralto), Michael Connaire (tenor), Bent Hennersdorf (boy soprano)
Kantorei St. Nikolai, Hamburg Camerata/Matthias Hoffman-Borggrefe
rec. 15-16 November 2013, Hauptkirche St. Nikolai am Klosterstern, Hamburg
TROUBADISC TROCD01445 [65:07 + 64:05]

We all need a recording of Elijah — or Elias when sung in German, as here — if only to allow the repeated hearings that enable us to make up our minds. The Victorians seem to have loved it above any other oratorio except Handel’s Messiah. Choirs love to sing it and it has gratifying solo parts. This all explains its continued presence in concert programmes and on disc. Yet one still sees reference to George Bernard Shaw’s hatchet job on the composer’s “despicable oratorio-mongering”, calling it a “prostitution of Mendelssohn’s great genius to this lust for threatening and vengeance”. That same great genius of a composer thought Elijah was his best work. One can admire and even love Elijah, without sharing Mendelssohn’s view of its status in his output. If made to choose would you save from destruction Elijah or the Octet? How about the Italian Symphony, the Violin Concerto or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The oratorio probably still belongs in his ‘top ten’ for most Mendelssohnians but is this recording one of the top ten versions?

It unquestionably begins as if it might be. The splendid opening is one of the coups de théâtre of the score. The single bar of wind and brass chords has a tactile presence here in excellent sound. Also the immediate entry of the bass soloist is very striking indeed as Elijah delivers his admonitory recitative. This is ahead of the orchestral overture proper which is then played with plenty of spirit. The bass Yorck Felix Speer has the imposing voice and dramatic manner for the Old Testament prophet, and although slightly taxed at one or two moments at the extremes of the range, his is a fine assumption of this demanding role. No version, not even those with Fischer-Dieskau and Bryn Terfel, opens more arrestingly or with more baleful authority.

The other soloists are good too, even if none of them match the many starry names that have recorded Elijah. Michael Connaire the tenor soloist is suave and appealing enough in Obadiah’s aria “So ihr mich von ganzen Herzen suchen”. Soprano Katherina Müller uses her light gleaming tone to good effect in Part I’s widow’s aria and duet with Elijah. She opens part II very impressively with “Höre, Israel” but is stretched somewhat later in the number. Yvi Jänicke the contralto has greater steadiness than that, and Bent Hennersdorf, the boy soprano sings with purity, his distant placing effectively atmospheric. The choir soloists are well matched, and make good contributions to their two numbers.

The chorus and the way it is recorded is the main problem here. It sounds moderate in size and looks to be one hundred or so to judge by the session photograph – certainly not the three hundred used for the Birmingham premiere and in McCreesh’s 2012 release. They sing well generally, though the tone and ensemble of some groups is not always ideal. The men open their invocation “Baal enhöre uns!” rather as if swaying in the Bierkeller, tankards in hand. The chorus is not helped by the recording which, while mostly full and realistic for soloists and orchestra, muddies the choral picture and places the choir too far behind the soloists and orchestra in the sound image. Exchanges between soloists and chorus such as that between the Queen and the people in part II are plagued by this shift of focus between them. The orchestra playing is good, and the direction of Hoffman-Borggrefe idiomatic.

The competition in recordings of Elijah is considerable, especially as no-one seems to feel that the use of German or English makes much difference in a work composed in German but premiered in English. This might be because Mendelssohn was himself involved in the translation from the German text, and he had very good English. However, if you want a recent version using the German text this Troubadisc Elias is eclipsed by the 2008 version on Carus with Stuttgart forces under Frieder Bernius with Michael Volle in the title part and fine SACD sound. The English language versions are plentiful and cover the stereo era from Frühbeck de Burgos on EMI in 1968 with Janet Baker and Fischer-Dieskau, to Paul Daniel on Decca in 1997, with Renée Fleming and the Bryn Terfel. More recently McCreesh’s Signum recording was for many a game-changer, replicating the massive forces of the work’s first performance.

Roy Westbrook