Friday 4 October 2019

Listening with new ears: Masaaki Suzuki conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah

Brmingham Town Hall as it appeared during the performance of 'Elijah', August 26th 1846, London Illustrated News
Brmingham Town Hall as it appeared during the performance of Elijah, August 26th 1846, London Illustrated News
Felix Mendelssohn Elijah; Christian Immler, Carolyn Sampson, Anna Stéphany, Robert Murray,
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 October 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Bach-specialist Masaaki Suzuki's lithe and re-focused account makes us listen to Mendelssohn's choral spectacular with new ears

Mendelssohn's Elijah never really went away, but there was a period post-war when the work was not taken as seriously as it should have been perhaps because it became such a popular choral society war-horse. Deeply embedded in the Northern choral tradition, Elijah was performed by the Halle in the 1970s when I was a student (with Benjamin Luxon as Elijah, I think), and I saw it again in Scotland with the Scottish National Orchestra in the early 1980s (with Norman Bailey in the title role). Yet when Raymond Leppard conducted Elijah with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in London in the late 1980s, the work was seen as deeply unfashionable. The London Philharmonic Choir had not sung the work in recent memory, and quite a number of the singers were entirely unfamiliar with it. Thankfully, organisations now are not only performing the work but exploring it, and looking beyond the immediate facade of grand choral splendour that the work projects.

So it was a stroke of imagination for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to bring Masaaki Suzuki to conduct the work, a conductor steeped in the works of Mendelssohn's great idol and influence, J.S. Bach.

At the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 3 October 2019, Masaaki Suzuki conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Choir of the Enlightenment in Mendelssohn's Elijah, with soloists Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor, replacing an ailing Brenden Gunnell), and baritone Christian Immler as Elijah.

Whilst the text of Mendelssohn's 1846 oratorio is fixed, the composer did leave us with some interesting performance issues. Language for a start, English or German? It was written in German, with a parallel English translation and both languages have some sort of primacy. And then there is the question of the soloists, how many? At the premiere in Birmingham, Mendelssohn had ten soloists! The work veers away from traditional Handelian oratorio in its use of vocal ensembles (there is a trio, three quartets and a double quartet), along with eight main roles (the child, the Widow, soprano and mezzo Angels, Jezebel, Obadiah, Ahab and Elijah). By the 20th century it had become common to perform the work with four soloists and use a chamber choir for all the rest. There have been occasional explorations of Mendelssohn's original conception with eight soloists (Wolfgang Sawallisch's recording of the German version, and Paul Daniel's 1996 recording with the OAE and Bryn Terfel in the title role), but more recent performances have seen the development of the use of choral soloists. So that the seven main roles are still shared between four main soloists, and all the ensembles sung by professional soloists drawn from the choir, and this is what Suzuki did.

The Choir of the Enlightenment numbered a little over 30, and of these Alice Gribbin, Sofia Larsson, Emma Walshe, Sarah Denbee, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Rory Carvery, Laurence Kilsby, Jonathan Brown, and Malacy Frame stepped out to perform the vocal ensembles with only the final quartet being performed by the main soloists.

Given the forces, this was a very lithe performance of the work. Massive and loud when it needed to be, but the orchestra lacked the all-enveloping sound of modern strings, and the choir similarly had a narrower, leaner more focussed sound coming from 30 something young professional voices. This revealed colours and textures in the work which are not always apparent. Mendelssohn's orchestral writing really came over, we noticed his use of choirs of instruments, and the presence of natural horns, narrow-bore trombones and an ophicleide, ensured some wonderful sounds. Suzuki emphasised this litheness and encouraged both choir and orchestra to articulate and bring out the rhythms. It is worth remembering that Mendelssohn was still only in his mid-30s when he wrote it, this is vivid, young man's music and this performance really brought this over.

That Bach was a big inspiration for Mendelssohn can be heard from his choral writing in his motets, and here working with a smaller more focused group, Suzuki's tempos, approach to rhythm and phrasing really brought this out in the choruses. Yes, we had some big, grand moments but Suzuki didn't luxuriate in the textures, instead he was propulsive, with a striking sense of the underlying structure of the piece. And his young choral singers were wonderfully responsive.

Christian Immler's response to the title role was similarly lithe, and re-thought. There is a tradition of German-speaking baritones performing Elijah, at the premiere the role was sung by an Austrian baritone and the recording (in English) by the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau played an important role in the rehabilitation of the work. Immler does not have a warm, expansive sound in the tradition of some baritones that I have heard, this was not the image of the big-hearted patriarch. Instead, there was something more focused and intense about his performance. This worked very well, though just occasionally I wished for a greater amplitude in his voice. His response to the words was very important, not just his fine diction but the meaning and the way they coloured the voice. His was a very dignified, upright Elijah, with some really urgent moments like 'Is not His work like a fire',  trenchant too when dealing with the prophets of Baal and a powerful commitment to the combination of words and music.

The remaining three soloists pop up in a variety of roles, and this rather tests their ability to sketch in a deft characterisation in very little material. Carolyn Sampson was wonderfully vivid and anxious as the Widow, and her duet with Immler's Elijah was urgent indeed. Sampson opened part two with a beautifully intimate account of 'Hear ye, Israel' which developed into something rather intense, yet lyrically beautifully. I noticed her careful way with the phrasing of Mendelssohn's music, again responding to the words. Anna Stéphany made a dignified and warm Angel in Part One, shaping her phrases with great care and poise, and her arioso 'Woe unto them' was understated yet very moving. As Jezebel in Part Two, I could have wanted her to bring a little more operatic fire, though she was nicely trenchant. Tenor Robert Murray brought a combination of strength and lyrical beauty to the tenor arias, making Obadiah's 'If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me', sober and earnest, and there was a nice simplicity and directness in Obadiah's recitatives. For Ahab's short contribution, Murray brought such vivid sense of drama that I rather wished the character got more!

Emma Walshe sang the Child, with lovely clear tones; still recognisably a woman but with simplicity and purity to it. For the trio, quartets and double quartet, the young soloists came together in various formations and impressed with their balance and intensity. These were very much vocal ensembles, with clear, distinct voices rather than choral blend, and we appreciated the vibrancy and poise that this brought to the music. The quartet 'Cast thy burden upon the Lord' was rather magical, and the double quartet beautifully lithe and shapely.

The orchestra was on superb form, responding to Suzuki's dynamic direction and bringing out Mendelssohn's imaginative score with great vividness. Mendelssohn on period instruments is becoming more common, but not so common that we cannot appreciate the transformation that brings about, the sense of texture and colour, with individual instruments contributing more. In one respect, the performance was firmly rooted in the present. The organ part was played by William Whitehead on the Royal Festival Hall organ, which means that pitch was securely at modern standard. It would be interesting to know what the pitch of the Birmingham Town Hall organ was in 1846!

This was not a re-creation of Mendelssohn's original performance, after all he had a choir of 270 with 60 'bearded altos'. Instead we had an exploration of the work, using forces that the composer would have recognised and bringing out themes in the piece which can get obscured by the grand choral-society approach.

The performance is being repeated in Paris on Tuesday (8/10/2019) at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

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