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Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 - 1847): "Elijah 1846"

Rosemary Joshua, Jonty Ward, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Gabrieli Consort; Chetham's Chamber Choir; North East Youth Chorale; Taplow Youth Choir; Ulster Youth Chamber Choir; Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir; Gabrieli Players; William Whitehead, organ
Dir: Paul McCreesh

rec: August 29 - Sept 1, 2011, Watford, Colosseum; Feb 26, 2012, Birmingham, Town Hall
Signum Classics - SIGCD 300 (2 CDs) ( 2012) (1.35'58")
Liner-notes: E/P; lyrics - translation: P
Cover & track-list

[Gabrieli Consort, soli] Susan Gilmour Bailey, Emily Rowley Jones, soprano; Lucy Ballard, Ruth Gibbins, mezzo-soprano; Samuel Boden, Richard Rowntree, tenor; Robert Davies, William Gaunt, bass

The oratorio was one of the most popular genres of vocal music in the baroque era. It was mostly based on biblical subjects, although free invented elements were often included. Since the end of the 17th century especially the Italian oratorios became increasingly dramatic and came stylistically close to opera. The oratorios which Handel composed in the second part of his career are examples of this development as many of these can be considered sacred operas on an English text. One could probably think that in the classical period the oratorio took a back seat: Mozart and Beethoven each composed just one oratorio. Haydn wrote three, but two of them only in the last decade of his life. However, many oratorios were written at that time, but often by composers who for a long time have remained in the shadow of the 'big three', and have been rediscovered only fairly recently.

Oratorios of the 19th century often had a subject which was only partially biblical or not at all, as they were sometimes based on legends, such as Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth by Liszt. However, the 19th century also saw an increased interest in the oratorios by Handel, and that encouraged composers to turn to biblical subjects. One of them was Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who composed two oratorios which are still part of the standard repertoire of 19th-century choral music, Paulus and Elias. A third oratorio, Christus, has remained unfinished.

Although it is historically correct to rank Elias among the German oratorios, it received its first performance in England, on an English translation of the original German libretto. Mendelssohn had taken up the idea of composing an oratorio on the Old Testament prophet Elijah in 1836. He set up a plan and asked his friend Karl Klingemann to deliver a libretto, but he didn't react. He then turned to the theologian Julius Schubring who had written the text for Paulus. For some time Mendelssohn postponed the composition of the work, but in 1845 he received the request of writing an oratorio for the 1846 Birmingham Festival. Mendelssohn turned again to Schubring but used only parts of the latter's text. He avoided too explicit references to the New Testament, although christological elements are still clearly present in the oratorio as we know it. The text was then translated into English by William Bartholomew.

The first performance took place on 26 August 1846 and found an overwhelming reception. The next day The Times wrote: "The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening. It was as if enthusiasm, long checked had suddenly burst its bonds and filled the air with shouts of exultation. (...) Never was there a more complete triumph - never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art".

Elijah is certainly not a kind of sacred opera, although the life of Elija was full of drama. There is no continuing narrative; it is rather a sequence of six tableaus from Elijah's life, three in each of the two parts. The opening is remarkable: in a recitative Elijah announces that Israel - ruled by the ungodly King Ahab and Queen Jezebel - will suffer from drought and famine; only then follows the overture. One of the reasons of the ongoing popularity of this oratorio is the large number of choruses. The choir takes several roles, sometimes expressing the feelings of the people of Israel, elsewhere commenting the events. The soloists also take various roles, with the exception of the baritone who sings the title role.

There is no lack of recordings of Elijah, both in English and in German. However, the present recording is the first which tries to recreate the circumstances of the first performance in 1846, especially in regard to the number of singers and players. We know about the huge choirs and orchestras which were involved in performances of Handel's oratorios in England which started soon after the composer's death. The performance of Elijah was in line with that practice. Paul McCreesh took into account the documentary evidence of this performance which has come down to us. In this recording around 400 musicians are involved. It is not always the full orchestra which is employed: McCreesh believes that there was a solo/ripieno division of orchestral forces between the arias and the choruses. Obviously period instruments are used, and these include two ophicleides, and even a contrabass ophicleide. Only one original copy in playable condition of the latter seems to exist, and this was used for the recording. Also important is the involvement of the large organ in Birmingham Town Hall which dates from 1834 when the hall opened. In the recording only those parts were used which were already present at that time.

From a historical perspective this recording is a major achievement. For the first time we get some idea of the vast forces which were involved in performances of vocal music during the 19th century. Not even the most 'authentic' performances come close to what is presented here. The picture of many vocal works of the late classical (Haydn) and romantic periods could well change fundamentally if they would be performed with the kind of forces which were involved at that time. However, one has to realise that this kind of recordings are hard to realise. Paul McCreesh could profit from various factors, for instance his close collaboration with the choir from Wroclaw as he is director of the festival Wratislavia Cantans. In the end it is also a matter of money whether such performances can be realised.

The choirs and the orchestra are the most satisfying part of this performance. It is remarkable that a choir of this size can produce a relatively transparent sound. That is a major issue for McCreesh as he explains in the booklet: "I want to emulate the extremely nuanced, coloured and articulated singing that a chamber choir can produce, whilst revelling in the quite extraordinary weight of sound that one can deliver with such big forces." One could probably think that with an orchestra of more than 120 we return to the old days when this kind of repertoire was performed by full-blooded symphony orchestras. That is not the case: the use of period instruments makes much difference. Their sound is mellower, the balance between winds and strings is much better and the strings playing with minimal vibrato makes for a strong difference with 'traditional' performances.

I wish McCreesh had also asked the soloists to sing with 'minimal vibrato'. I fail to understand why so many conductors handle the performances of vocal and instrumental parts so differently. Simon Keenlyside gives an impressive and differentiated account of the role of Elijah. It is just a shame that he uses too much vibrato, although it is even modest in comparison to that of the other soloists. Their singing is largely spoiled by an incessant and wide vibrato which is unstylish and historically untenable. The quartets which are sung by different singers also suffer from this phenomenon, for instance 'O come everyone that thirsteth', where the four voices don't blend at all. This is a serious shortcoming which withhold me from ranking this performance among the best available recordings of Mendelssohn's Elijah.

Another regrettable aspect is the choice of text. Mendelssohn changed Elijah after the first performance. He once called his constant need to change and adjust his compositions as "a dreadful disease" from which he suffered chronically and severely. It is rather odd that McCreesh, for a performance which aims at more or less recreating the first performance, includes the changes Mendelssohn made after that performance. It had enhanced the historical importance of this recording if he had confined himself to the text as it was performed in 1846.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Sarah Connolly
Simon Keenlyside
Robert Murray
Chetham's Chamber Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players
North East Youth Chorale
Taplow Youth Choir
Ulster Youth Choir
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir

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