Monday 15 January 2018

Mendelssohn in Cologne: Elijah at the Kölner Philharmonie

Manuscript of Mendelssohn's Oratorio 'Elijah' used at the first performance in Birminghamin 1846
Manuscript of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah
used at the first performance in Birminghamin 1846
Mendelssohn Elijah; Hyuna Ko (soprano), Alexandra Thomas (alto), Markus Francke (tenor), Christoph Scheeben, Neues Rheinisches Kammerorchester, Köln and KölnChor, Wolfgang Siegenbrink; Kölner Philharmonie
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Jan 6 2018 Star rating: 5.0
A brilliant offering of Mendelssohn’s Elijah conducted by a master of the choral repertoire, Wolfgang Siegenbrink

Our correspondent, Tony, hears Mendelssohn's Elijah, performed in Cologne at the Kölner Philharmonie on Saturday 6 January 2018, with Neues Rheinisches Kammerorchester, Köln and KölnChor, and Hyuna Ko (soprano), Alexandra Thomas (alto), Markus Francke (tenor), Christoph Scheeben (bass) conducted by Wolfgang Siegenbrink

Mendelssohn’s epic Old Testament oratorio, Elijah, was first performed at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1846 which, sporadically, shared their festival with Leeds and Norwich while the other triumvirate festival, Three Choirs Festival, rotates to this very day with the cathedral towns of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. The German première, however, took place in Leipzig on the composer’s birthday (3 February 1848) only a few months after his death.

Mendelssohn had a tenuous relationship with the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival inasmuch as he was approached by the festival’s secretary in 1843 to become conductor of the 1845 Festival. However, there’s no record of his reply. Presumably he declined because the German-British composer/conductor, Sir Julius Benedict, a friend of Beethoven and Weber, was appointed that year.

Three years later he was approached once again and on this occasion asked for an oratorio. He declined on the grounds that he was too busy but indicated that he would write something for a future festival. Sadly, this did not happen as he died in November 1847. Elijah was first performed at the N&N Triennial in 1848 and was for a long period the festival’s most popular oratorio receiving no fewer than 13 performances between 1848 and 1930.

The work, however, depicting events in the life of the Biblical prophet, Elijah, was composed in the spirit of Mendelssohn’s Baroque predecessors, Bach and Handel, whose music he loved so dearly.

In fact, it was Mendelssohn who organised the first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1829 since the composer’s death in 1750. Strangely enough, Bach’s work had gone out of fashion so one can thank Mendelssohn wholeheartedly for bringing this great work and other significant works by this world-famous Baroque master to widespread popularity and, in doing so, made Leipzig a musical magnet once again.

At this year’s Leipzig BachFest (running from Friday 8 to Sunday 17 June 2018) Mendelssohn, I’m pleased to say, is the featured composer. Check out the programme by visiting the BachFest website.

By contrast, Handel’s oratorios never went out of fashion and Mendelssohn prepared a scholarly edition of some of his oratorios for publication in London. Although Elijah is modelled (and influenced) on the oratorios of Bach and Handel, its lyricism and use of orchestral and choral colour clearly defines and reflects his own genius as an early Romantic composer.

Mendelssohn first discussed writing an oratorio based on Elijah with his friend, Karl Klingemann, in the late 1830s. Herr Klingemann had provided him with the libretto for his comic operetta, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde, which resulted in a partial text that he was unable to finish. Therefore, Mendelssohn turned to Julius Schubring, the librettist for his earlier oratorio St Paul - which, incidentally, was heard for the first time in East Anglia at the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial meeting of 1881 with a further performance in 1893 - who quickly abandoned Klingemann’s work and produced his own text that combined the story of Elijah as told in the Book of Kings with Psalms.

The partnership worked extremely well and Elijah duly found fame and fortune particularly with UK audiences not that George Bernard Shaw approved. He was scathing about it. But he was scathing about nearly everything.

Without a shadow of doubt, the work harbours a wealth of good choral numbers to keep everyone more than happy and the hundred plus KölnChor were strong and on top form hitting the mark in a glorious performance which was superbly conducted by Wolfgang Siegenbrink, a choral conductor through and through and one who paid close attention to every minute detail of the score marshalling his joint forces in strict military precision.

The enjoyment of the performance - featuring the well-disciplined orchestra of Neues Rheinisches Kammerorchester, Köln - was helped no end by being seated within the confines of a comfortable concert-hall boasting good, clear and bright acoustics. Dating from 1986, the Kölner Philharmonie is cleverly constructed in the style of a Graeco-Roman amphitheatre (similar to the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre) which, incidentally, has no walls that stand parallel to each other thereby erasing any undesired echo effect therefore offering near-perfect acoustics. Even the seats (with plenty of leg room) are upholstered to optimise maximum sound thus ensuring that the acoustics remain consistent whether occupied or not.

It was also a comfortable performance, too, boasting a fine quartet of soloists comprising Hyuna Ko (soprano) whose operatic-sounding voice projected round the vastness of the Kölner Philharmonie with consummate ease while Alexandra Thomas (alto), possessed a rich and warm voice harbouring a wide range as did the clear and precise tenor voice of Markus Francke but the prize of the night was Christoph Scheeben who, incidentally, studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Anthony Rolfe Johnson. His strong and lyrical bass-baritone voice ideally fitted the part of Elijah.

Elijah is a powerful work for sure and among the many episodes is the resurrection of a dead youth. A dramatic episode, too, comes with the contest of the gods in which Jehovah consumes an offered sacrifice in a column of fire while a sequence of increasingly-frantic prayers by the prophets of the god Baal failed. Part I concludes by the bringing of rain to parched Israel through Elijah’s prayers while Part II depicts the prosecution of Elijah by Queen Jezebel, his retirement to the desert, his vision of God appearing, his return to his work and his ascension on a fiery chariot into heaven.

The work ends with prophecies and praise in two rousing, fulfilling and dramatic choruses - ‘And then shall your light break forth’ and ‘Lord, our Creator’ - that underlined once again the prowess of the KölnChor and the exemplary playing of the Neues Rheinisches Kammerorchester, Köln.

This performance on the Feast of the Epiphany, coupled with solemn High Mass earlier in the day at the Kölner Dom culminating in the procession and veneration of The Three Kings whose large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus is placed above and behind the high altar - proved a memorable day for me in Cologne, one of my favourite German cities. And that was not all, let me add, as I had the privilege of meeting the Cardinal and Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki. Wunderbar!

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

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