The intention of this new recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah conducted by Paul McCreesh was to recreate the first performance of the work at Birmingham Town Hall in 1846. This was very large scale affair, 100 musicians and 400 singers, and is very well documented. The first London performance, in 1847 is far less well documented. However, for this performance Mendelssohn made the significant revisions to the work which create the Elijah that we know today. So McCreesh has taken the decision to record the 1847 version but using forces akin to those Mendelssohn conducted in Birmingham. The result is to convincingly give us a taste of the sort of ‘big band’ performances of which the Victorians were so very fond.
The recording has been issued on McCreesh’s Winged Lion record label and was recorded with the support of the Wroclaw Cantans Festival of which McCreesh is artistic director. McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort and Players are joined by the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and choirs from the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme: Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Chamber Choir.
The recording was made in Watford Colosseum, but the organ of Birmingham Town Hall played by William Whitehead has been over dubbed onto it. Though the organ has undergone changes since the 1840’s, Whitehead explains in a CD article how he has attempted to come close to the sound of the organ at that period.
One area of problem for performances of Elijah remains the ensemble numbers intended for solo voices. Choral societies engaging just four soloists need to allocate these to a chamber choir, and performances with more than four soloists seem profligate. It is an issue which is often skirted over in reviews, but can have a small but significant effect on the overall sound of the piece. Wolfgang Sawallisch in his Leipzig recording of 1968 in German was one of the first major conductors to use eight singers and have the quartets, octet and trio all sung by soloists. Paul Daniel does this on his recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Bryn Terfel in the title role.
On this disc, McCreesh opts for a slightly different alternative. He uses four well established soloists, and the quartets, octet and trio are sung by a separate group of eight young solo singers from the choir (Susan Gilmour Bailey, Emily Rowley Jones, Lucy Ballard, Ruth Gibbins, Samuel Boden, Richard Rowntree, Robert Davies, and William Gaunt). The result beautifully realises Mendelssohn’s intentions, and at the same time moves the work further from the operatic. If you listen to these movements on the Sawallisch recording, sung by mature operatic voices, the results are closer to an operatic ensemble. But Mendelssohn wasn’t writing an opera, even though the work is dramatic.
In the last few years I have developed an increasing knowledge of Mendelssohn’s choral music, particularly his unaccompanied pieces and the cantatas which sound like trial runs for Elijah. Using different blocks of singers, soli against chorus, was a technique that you find cropping up, so clearly the sound world which McCreesh evokes is one which would have been familiar to Mendelssohn.
The orchestra has its share of interest and oddities including slide trumpets (an English invention which allowed natural trumpets to play chromatic notes), a contrabass ophicleide (there is only one of these left in playable condition and Gabrieli were lucky enough to borrow it from Albany, NY) and the addition of serpents to the vocal line.
Regarding the text, McCreesh has made his own discreet emendations to the original translation to remove the odd infelicity in the traditional version.
Of the various performances of Elijah that I have heard, both live and on disc, the three singers who have impressed most in the title role have been Norman Bailey and Benjamin Luxon (both heard live) and Bryn Terfel (heard only on disc). Now two of these are bass baritones and Luxon had a very rich dark voice, with a very dramatic delivery. Simon Keenlyside is rather different in style, his voice is slimmer for a start. I have heard him perform the role live, though with different forces to those on this disc, but my memories of that performance reinforce my impression that Keenlyside makes from this disc. But a critic must be careful of castigating contemporary singers just because they do not sound like their predecessors; the soprano role in this piece is a similar problem as I always hear it in my mind sung by Isobel Baillie. You must attempt to review the performance on its own terms.
Keenlyside sings Elijah beautifully and intelligently with a very fine sense of line and lovely feeling for the words. His delivery of It is enough is one of the most moving that I have heard. And he does not eschew singing very quietly, his phrase to the Widow Give me thy son is stunning. But, at the big moments, he can’t disguise that his voice lacks the bigness, the amplitude that would be ideal in this role and, quite simply, there are one or two moments when it goes lower than his comfort zone. His singing of the arias Is not His word like a fire is wonderfully vivid and vigorous, but he doesn’t quite fill the vocal line the way I want. One small point, Keenlyside does not seem to be able to settle on one particular pronunciation of the word Israel.
But his interpretation is well aligned to McCreesh’s interpretation, though this performance is dramatic, it is not particularly operatic. Here McCreesh’s experience conducting earlier oratorios comes to the fore and we experience Mendelssohn as the heir of Handel, Haydn and Bach, rather than as opera composer manqué.
In the soprano solos, Rosemary Joshua is vibrant and rich voiced. Her vibrato is caught in a way which sometimes compromises the line, but she brings to each solo a well modulated intelligence. Perhaps the Widow could be a little more pointed at first. Her delivery of Hear year, Israel is not the most beautiful I have heard, but it is supremely characterful.
Sarah Connolly turns in a beautifully rendered and differentiated performance of the alto arias. As Jezebel she conjures up a wonderful vein of nastiness (well supported by the chorus), whereas as the angel she is poised, beautiful and controlled. Her performance of O rest in the Lord brought a lump to my throat.
Tenor Robert Murray is someone whose work in the opera house and concert hall I have admired. Like many of his distinguished predecessors, he does not quite managed to differentiate between Ahab and Obadiah. More problematically, the recording has picked up strongly on his vibrato, especially in the upper register so that when he applies pressure to the voice it starts to sound unstable. This might not bother everyone, but I am afraid that it is something which I always notice.
Singing the role of the boy is Jonty Ward, at the time of recording he had just finished his treble career as Head Chorister of New College Oxford and has appeared in a number of their recordings including his stunning contribution to their Couperin disc.
But the real star of the disc is the chorus; huge it may be, but McCreesh gets a stunning variety of tone and volume from it. There are moments when you feel that perhaps his speeds are moderated to cope with the chorus’s huge size. I was particularly disturbed by the slowing down at the chorus’s first entry after the overture, but this was so marked that I presume it to be definite choice. The chorus brings great commitment to the nasty passages and turns in luminous singing in the hushed sections.
To hear quite what effect such a big chorus can have, you need to hear Holy, holy, holy where a quartet of young singers is contrasted with the huge, huge impact of the chorus. Simply stunning.
The orchestra is a similar revelation, with Mendelssohn’s textures coming over far more vividly than with modern instruments. I sang in the chorus for Elijah under Raymond Leppard in the 1980’s. His interpretation was, at the time, rather controversial but he pointed out to us that Elijah was still young man’s music. Mendelssohn was only 35 when the work was first performed. In some performances you forget this, but not here.
The CDs come with the libretto (in English and Polish), plus articles by a variety of people on the work and the recording, helping you to understand what you are hearing and why.
Elijah is a work very dear to my heart and I don’t think that any recording can ever succeed on every count. But in his recreation of the style of Mendelssohn’s first performance Paul McCreesh and his forces have come up with something rather wonderful to which I will return again and again.
Felix Mendelssohn - Elijah
Rosemary Joshua - Soprano
Sarah Connolly - Mezzo-soprano
Robert Murray - Tenor
Simon Keenlyside - Baritone
Jonty Ward - Treble
Susan Gilmour Bailey, Emily Rowley Jones - Soprano
Lucy Ballard, Ruth Gibbins - Mezzo-Soprano
Samuel Boden, Richard Rowntree - Tenor
Robert Davies, William Gaunt - Bass
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Chetham's Chamber Choir
North East Youth Chorale
Taplow Youth Choir
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir
William Whitehead - Organ
Paul McCreesh - Conductor
Recorded Watford Colosseum 29 August to 1 September 2011
Birmingham Town Hall 26 February 2012
Total running time 135:58
SIGCD 300 2CD's