Sunday 30 July 2023

Prom 19: Maxim Emelyanychev & Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mendelssohn's Elijah

Mendelssohn: Elijah - Roderick Williams, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus, Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Mendelssohn: Elijah - Roderick Williams, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus, Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Mendelssohn: Elijah; Carolyn Sampson, Rowan Pierce, Helen Charlston, Andrew Staples, Roderick Williams, SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Emelyanychev's historically informed approach complemented by some vivid choral singing in a performance a world away from the traditional oratorio view of Mendelssohn

Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev brought Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and SCO Chorus (chorus master Gregory Batsleer) to the Royal Albert Hall on 29 July 2023 for the BBC Proms. Roderick Williams sang Elijah with soloists Carolyn Sampson and Rowan Pierce, sopranos, Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano, and Andrew Staples, tenor.

Whilst there are no textural or editorial problems with Elijah, Mendelssohn did leave performers with questions which need answering before performing the work, notably what language to sing it in and how many soloists to use. Mendelssohn wrote the work in German, but had the English translation in parallel and worked closely with the translator to ensure that the English worked. He knew that the premiere was in English, and would have expected any performance in England to be in the language of the audience, as was this performance.

Mendelssohn: Elijah - Helen Charlston, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, SCO Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Mendelssohn: Elijah - Helen Charlston, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, SCO Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The issue of how many soloists is more tricky. Mendelssohn would have expected a whole posse of soloists, providing the solos, duet, trio, quartets and octet, but to modern ears this leaves fine singers rather woefully underemployed. [see my article 'In search of Elijah' for more detail of the first performance] During the 20th century, the convention sprang up to perform the work with four soloists and use a semi-chorus for the ensembles. For this performance, Emelyanychev took a middle way; the first quartet and the octet were sung by semi-chorus, but the final quartet was sung by the soloists and Rowan Pierce, who sang the Youth, joined Carolyn Sampson and Helen Charlston for the Angels' trio.

There was an element of middle-way about the orchestral forces too. The horns and the brass were using period instruments, the horn players surrounded by loops of tubing. Mendelssohn uses the brass to support the chorus and in the big ensembles, this change to narrower bore historic-style instruments has an important effect, lightening and removing traditional oratorio stodge. This was still a big performance, Elijah is no chamber piece, but Emelyanychev's approach was lighter and more fleet. This was much less of a dramatic monolith than some traditional performances. This was reflected in the soloists, all of whom had lyric voices.

Roderick Williams made a finely intelligent Elijah; from the outset he radiated that sense of an inner feeling of commitment to his belief and there was a warmth about him which convinced. This was the friendly, Anglican vicar sort of prophet rather than the hectoring bully that the role can sometimes become with a bigger, more dramatic voice. Williams has a definite lyric voice, and there were moments when he seemed, perhaps, half a size too small for the Royal Albert Hall. He was unable to impose his voice on the larger moments, but his sense commitment was absolute. And the converse was that his arias, 'Lord God of Abraham' and 'It is enough' were given in a movingly intimate way, with a beautiful attention to the shape of the phrases. Whilst 'Is not his word like a fire?' lacked the ultimate in fire, Williams brought admirable mobility to his voice, and throughout the evening his attention to the words was absolute.

Mendelssohn: Elijah - Roderick Williams, Scottish Chamber Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Mendelssohn: Elijah - Roderick Williams, Scottish Chamber Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Carolyn Sampson brought the right element of sharpness to the Widow, 'What have I to do with the, O man of God?', but also a lovely focus to her tone and she imbued the role with sympathy too, so the scene with Williams became a moment of urgent drama. 'Hear ye, Israel' was beautifully poise with a highly artful approach to the phrasing, and 'O rest in the Lord', was rather plangent and Emelyanychev's speed here was quite pacey. Helen Charlston brought great beauty of tone and sense of line to her moments as the Angel, creating a significant effect in a small moment. Her aria 'Woe unto them' was plangently expressive and very moving, whilst as the Queen, Charlston was highly trenchant and implacable. Rowan Pierce made a wonderfully confident Youth, projecting with bright, youthful tone from the organ loft. She joined with Sampson for elegant account of the duet, 'Lord, bow thine ear to our prayer!' she, Sampson and Charlston gave a moving account of the Angels' trio, 'Lift thine eyes' which was full of poised beauty.

Andrew Staples brought a strong sense of focus and edge to his tone, creating a vivid line. His Obadiah initially had a rather trenchant quality to him, but the area 'Man of god let my words be precious in thy sight' was sung with an intense yet elegant sense of  line. By contrast, he projected Ahab with vivid drama. His final aria, 'Then shall the righteous' was wonderfully projected.

Mendelssohn: Elijah - Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, Andrew Staples, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Mendelssohn: Elijah - Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, Andrew Staples, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The first quartet 'Cast thy burden on the Lord' and the octet 'For he shall give his angels charge over thee' were sung by a semi-chorus of 24. I would have preferred individual voices, but here the SCO semi-chorus sang with such mesmerising beauty of tone that you forgave everything. The final quartet, 'Come every one that thirsteth' was sung by the soloists and all the more moving for that.

Whilst Mendelssohn had already started sketching Elijah before the commission came from Birmingham, that he knew he was writing for the large Birmingham chorus probably helped shape the work. The chorus does not simply comment, it takes a leading role in the drama, fully participating in the scene with the fire and the coming of rain, and then taking up the reins of narration for the scene where God appears to Elijah on mount Horeb and for Elijah's death.

The SCO Chorus were on terrific form, fully entering into the drama and singing with commitment and focus. The singers seemed not at all phased by Emelyanychev's sometimes swift speeds, and choruses were precise yet vivid. By turns elegant, suave and dramatic, the chorus rightly became another participant in the drama. Moments like the final chorus of Part One, 'Thanks be to God' were impressive for the way the singers combined vigour and highly articulated rhythms with a fleet tempo, whilst the two large choral moments at the end 'Behold! God the Lord passed by! and 'Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire' were both sung with vigour and commitment, along with a superb attention to the words. I think that the phrase 'there came a fiery chariot, with fiery, fiery horses' must be one of the most satisfying to sing in all oratorio, and here the singers relished every syllable.

The twenty-four singers of the semi-chorus sang with polished, hushed tone and impressed, whilst in 'Holy, holy, holy' the choir provided both soli and ensemble to fine effect.

Mendelssohn: Elijah - Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Mendelssohn: Elijah - Maxim Emelyanychev - BBC Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

From the opening notes of the overture, it was clear that Emelyanychev and the orchestra were taking care with the style of the piece, the playing and articulation from the strings, in particular, being on a par with the use of historically informed brass instruments. The whole was far closer to modern performances of Mendelssohn's symphonies that is often the case. Emelyanychev's Mendelssohn was light on its feet, expressively shaped and, where necessary, full of excitement. He had a fine eye for detail, and throughout the evening there was lots to enjoy in the orchestra, but he also had an ear for the drama and kept the whole moving. 

This performance was a world away from the traditional oratorio view of Mendelssohn. Fleet and incisive, with plenty of drama yet intimate moments too, this was Mendelssohn in the style he should be, with a lyric soloists giving the music style and vivid choral singing that made the evening complete.

Apologies: I originally said that the orchestra had already performed Elijah in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It turns out, I got the years wrong and the performances are in May next year. 

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