Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Elias, Op. 70, MWV A25 [126:07]
Marlis Petersen (soprano); Lioba Braun (mezzo); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Thomas Oliemans (baritone)
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. live, 5 July 2015, Konzerthaus, Berlin
German text, English and French translations included ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30356 [63:15 + 62:51]
Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elias, was the first work that Hans-Christoph Rademann conducted with the RIAS Kammerchor after becoming their director in 2007. Appropriately, he chose to say farewell with the same work when he stepped down from his role with the choir in 2015. It can be said straightaway that the performance captured on these CDs was a very fine one. Rademann benefited from terrific choral singing and orchestral playing and had four excellent soloists at his disposal. Just as significantly, his direction of the score is exciting and compelling. Every time I’ve listened to these discs I’ve been tremendously impressed.
It’s been instructive to make comparisons with two other German-language recordings, both of which I’ve admired for many years. One is the 1968 Philips recording made under studio conditions by Wolfgang Sawallisch. In many respects this isn’t comparable with Rademann’s version since Sawallisch uses the large, traditional forces of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Rundfunkchor Leipzig. Where comparisons are useful, however, is in the matter of the soloists. A more direct comparator is the Harmonia Mundi recording conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. Like Rademann’s recording, this is taken from live performances, in this case a pair of concerts given in February 1993 in the magnificent Grande Salle of L’Arsenal, Metz. Herreweghe’s version uses a choir and orchestra of almost identical size to Rademann’s
A performance of Elias stands or falls by the bass who delivers the title role. Herreweghe has Petteri Salomaa. Though he’s described as a bass he sounds more baritonal to me. Salomaa is very good in the lyrical stretches of the role but I don’t think he has quite the histrionic power that is often required. Thus, for example, he’s very fine in the outer sections of ‘Es ist genug!’ but not quite so convincing in the fiery central passage. Sawallisch has Theo Adam and he’s a magisterial presence; his ‘Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer’, taken at a slightly steadier pace than either of his two colleagues, is commanding. Thomas Oliemans seems to me to embrace all facets of the Prophet’s personality. So, for example, he’s very expressive in ‘Herr Gott Abrahams’ and gives an exciting, well-articulated account of ‘Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer’. When he reproves King Ahab his singing is strong and full of righteous wrath. Yet this is an Elijah who is never histrionic at the expense of dignity and of that I approve very much. I was moved by his deeply felt rendition of ‘Es ist genug!’ and after all the Prophet’s tribulations have come to an end Oliemans takes his leave in dignified fashion with ‘Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen’. His is an admirable assumption of the title role.
Rademann is well served by his other soloists. Marlis Petersen makes a very good impression as the Widow and at the start of Part II I also enjoyed her rendition of ‘Höre, Israel’. Having said that, though, Soile Isokowski offers a more burnished sound on the Herreweghe set and Edith Mathis (Sawallisch) is especially engaging. Lioba Braun’s singing is characterised by warm tone and her delivery is poised, as in ‘Weh ihnen, daß sie von mir weichen!’ However, in Part II, when she takes the part of Ahab’s Queen responding to Elijah’s denunciation of the king, I like the way she hardens her tone as she incites the crowd. This is not a queen who takes prisoners.
Maximilian Schmitt is excellent as Obadiah. I admired his lovely, pliant rendition of ‘So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet’ and the preceding recitative while the equally fine aria ‘Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten’ near the end is also splendidly sung. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to be without the peerless Peter Schreier on the Sawallisch set.
Fittingly, given that it was their last performance for Rademann, the chorus is absolutely superb. There are only 42 of them but, my goodness, they punch above their weight. There are some magnificent choruses in this work and the RIAS singers do them splendidly. There’s delicacy in choruses such as ‘Wohl dem, der den Herrn fürchtet’ and ‘Wer bis an das Ende beharrt’. What really sticks in the mind, however, are the dramatic episodes. In Part I the choir’s increasingly desperate and vain cries to the god Baal are truly thrilling, especially the last one in the series but even this is trumped in Part II when, after the Queen has whipped them up, the chorus, as the crowd, hurl out ‘Wehe ihm, er muß sterben!’ with burning intensity. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard choruses such as these delivered with greater incisiveness or conviction.
The playing of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is no less fine. Their playing is never less than distinguished and there’s a good deal of finesse and sensitivity to admire. They can also turn up the heat when required, just as the chorus does. I must single out for special mention the timpanist, Heiner Herzog. Not long ago I was critical of the over-emphatic timpani in a Beethoven recording conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt where the playing verged on the hectoring. Here, Herzog gives an object lesson in crisp, incisive and exciting timpani playing on period drums. Time and again the timpani add urgency and excitement, impelling the music forward, yet never do the drums become overbearing. The only minor disappointment I had in terms of the instrumental contribution was that the organ is simply inaudible. Mind you, I’ve been spoiled by the mighty sound of the Birmingham Town Hall organ on Paul McCreesh’s splendid recording of the work in English (review).
Above all this recording is a triumph for Hans-Christoph Rademann. He displays a complete command of the score, judging expertly when to press forward with urgency in the dramatic moments and when to relax in order to allow Mendelssohn’s lyrical genius fully to flower. In some quarters Mendelsohn’s oratorio has been judged as worthy but a bit dull and pious. Well, it’s certainly not that in Rademann’s hands. He brings the score thrillingly to life. A highly experienced singer and singing teacher of my acquaintance is wont to tell singers to “tell the story”. There’s no doubt at all that Rademann and his performers obey that injunction.
I enjoyed this performance immensely. It’s an account of Elias that confirms the true stature of the work. The recording is a coproduction with Deutschlandradio Kultur so maybe it’s their engineers who were responsible for the sound, which is excellent. The booklet contains the German text and translations in English and French, all clearly laid out. There’s also a substantial essay about the work but this is in German only, which is a pity. For the English and French versions one is directed to the Accentus website but despite diligent searching there I couldn’t find the translations. I emailed the label for guidance but answer came there none.
No matter, it’s the performance that counts and, as you’ll have gathered, I rate that very highly indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to sing in several performances of this great work and I’ve always found it very exciting, if tiring, to perform but hearing it in such a compelling performance as this is just as exciting and satisfying.