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2011.08.28 – Elijah, Royal Albert Hall, London: Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray,Paul McCreesh

Elijah

28 August 2011, 19:00h

Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, London

Rosemary Joshua soprano
Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano
Robert Murray tenor
Simon Keenlyside baritone
Taplow Youth Choir
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir
Chetham’s Chamber Choir
North East Youth Choir
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh conductor

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Elijah

What the critics say

George Hall, The Guardian, 29.8.2011

Mendelssohn’s iconic oratorio, beloved of UK audiences since its Birmingham premiere in 1846, fell from critical favour with the passing of the Victorian era. George Bernard Shaw was scathing about the composer’s “despicable oratorio-mongering”, describing the “prostitution of Mendelssohn’s great genius to this lust for threatening and vengeance, doom and wrath” as “the most painful incident in the art-history of the century”. Even Paul McCreesh, who conducted this account with massive forces, recreating those of the Birmingham launch, confesses to once hating Elijah; he now regards it as “a tremendous masterpiece”.

A fair assessment might conclude that the work’s unevenness is redeemed by some vividly dramatic scenes and several sections of outstanding imagination and beauty; but there are others where the level of inspiration slumps from the sublime to the conventional and even the complacent.

No one would quibble with the high aims of this performance, or help but marvel at its gargantuan forces: 300 in the assembled choir, plus an orchestra of more than 120, taking in three serpents and three ophicleides – one of them the only playable contrabass ophicleide in the world, normally residing in New York. Visually as well as sonically, this was a mammoth spectacle.

The demands of marshalling such a vast assembly tended to keep McCreesh’s tempos on the staid side, and many chords were not quite unanimously sounded. The volume produced by the choir – made up of individual ensembles from Wroclaw, Ulster, the north east, Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and Taplow, with a full-strength Gabrieli Consort as its foundation – was occasionally terrifying. Rosemary Joshua’s fresh-faced soprano, Sarah Connolly’s plush mezzo, Robert Murray’s lithe tenor and Simon Keenlyside’s formidable baritone made up an exemplary quartet of soloists, with Jonty Ward’s treble interventions perfectly voiced.

Edward Seckerson, The Indipendet, 30.8.2011

5 stars

When the fiery chariot finally arrived to transport Elijah aloft and the antiphonal trumpets and drums and assorted ophicleides of Paul McCreesh’s mightily augmented Gabrieli Players Consort and Players were rent asunder by the open-stopped thrust of the Royal Albert Hall organ you suddenly realised why the Victorians became damp with ecstasy at the very mention of the prophet’s name.

Mendelssohn’s celebrated oratorio has long been at the top of the oratorio heap, beloved by choral societies up and down the land. As communal “sings” go, this one redefines the phrase full-throated and lends every conceivable opportunity for a choir or choirs to strut their stuff in numbers which run the gamut from Old Testament sternness to joyful affirmation. Fielding a Mahlerian sized orchestra full of period touches – like the aforementioned ophicleides (a kind of big vertical bugle) and a trio of serpents (distant ancestor of the tuba) – and a clutch of youth choirs buttressing the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Paul McCreesh went all-out for the full Victorian monty in a hall (and a festival) which demanded nothing less – and from the moment that that startling cry of “Help, Lord!” went up from The People to rattle the Albert Hall’s acoustic discs those of a nervous disposition were given fair warning.

But “Victorian” though this performance was in scale and period detail its vitality and uplift had nothing whatever to do with the kind of Teutonic dead weight that the piece has acquired over the years. The wonder here was that so many voices could so cleanly articulate the exuberance of Mendelssohn’s choral writing. Familiar choruses like “Thanks be to God!” at the close of part one or “Be not afraid” at the start of part two, boasting pneumatic organ pedal work, were not just rousing in the best sense of the word but airy – a seeming contradiction of lightness and heft held in perfect accord.

There is, of course, wonderful textural variety in the piece with quartets and solo numbers making for intimate “asides” from the big gestures. And those tunes – each with a kind of Sullivanesque catchiness in the hook but blessed with Mendelssohnian discretion. Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray, and Simon Keenlyside all seized their moments in the light but it was the way that that light collectively shone forth that made this a night to remember.

Richard Fairman,ft.com,30.8.2011

A specially chartered steam train took performers up to Birmingham for the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846. A multitude of musicians was assembled in the Town Hall for the occasion, including a huge orchestra and a choir of more than 300 – not to mention, according to Mendelssohn’s own description, 60-plus “bearded altos”.

In researching and trying to replicate the oratorio’s premiere last weekend, conductor Paul McCreesh left no spared expense. The BBC Proms have offered some massive performances in the course of this season’s Sunday evening choral series and this was another whopper. Roger Wright, emperor of the BBC Proms, is certainly delivering the sold-out crowds their “bread and circuses”.

In theory, the main interest lay with the orchestra. McCreesh’s period-instrument band, the Gabrieli Players, was doubled in size with a string section so big they could hardly fit on the platform, double woodwind, trumpets and timpani. Three men squashed into the space far right over the stage entrance were playing serpents (a long-extinct brass instrument) but sadly we never heard a squeak out of them. The three ophicleide players, including one wielding what is believed to be the only surviving playable “monstre” ophicleide in the world, fared better, letting out some very rude, low rasping sounds that made the floor vibrate.

In the event, though, the huge and amorphous sound coming out of the orchestra gave the performance less of a boost than the high-quality singing of the choir. McCreesh must have used all his skill as a choral director to get such unanimous singing from his diverse groups. They deserve to be named in full: the Gabrieli Consort, Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale and Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir.

Simon Keenlyside led the solo quartet as Elijah and, if he was not quite the sort of prophet Mendelssohn imagined (“zealous, and yes, even bad-tempered, angry and brooding”) his singing came across with very impressive projection and at times eloquent beauty. Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly were nicely matched as the expressive soprano and mezzo, Robert Murray was the tenor and Jonty Ward the strong treble. These Sunday choral evenings have been the highlight of the 2011 Proms. Maybe they should become an annual fixture?

Alexandra Coghlan, New Statesman.com, 2.9.2011

A perfectly rendered performance of Mendelssohn’s greatest oratorio.

Like so many of our beloved national institutions – cricket, tea, the Royal Family – Elijah is a foreign import. Composed specifically for the English choral world, however, Mendelssohn’s balance of lyrical conservatism and Old Testament morality (complete with vigorous smiting) was embraced to England’s Victorian bosom, where it remained lodged for many decades. Framed in the appropriately Victorian splendour of the Royal Albert Hall, Paul McCreesh and some five hundred musicians last weekend recreated the work’s 1846 Birmingham premiere – authentic in all but sideburns and corsetry.

Still a staple of choral societies across the country, Elijah has become synonymous with amateur performance, with singers bolstered by the full might of contemporary orchestral forces. A period interpretation fielding not only gut strings but serpents, ophicleides and the sole functioning contrabass ophicleide in existence – a giant, metallic sea-monster of an instrument – couldn’t be in greater contrast.

Although orchestral textures were dulled by the Royal Albert Hall acoustic and by the weight of the voices, the clatter and rasp of authentic instruments remained always a hinted presence in the ears. While Mendelssohn’s technicolour epic glows with remastered brilliance in contemporary performance, it can also become garish and smug. Here, with the string sound thinned out and the acid interjections of early brass, there was spectacle but also subtlety – a delicately shaded New Testament reading of a starkly Old Testament drama.

Joining McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players (in doubled numbers) were four British youth choirs and Poland’s Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir. As a flagship concert for the new Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme it was an impressive feat. So powerful was the first choral intercession “Help, Lord!” that you almost expected a response from the heavens to end the performance then and there. But aside from the raw impact of so many voices, there was a clarity of articulation and musical intent that belied the bulk of the chorus and spoke of the world-class training these young singers are receiving.

The rather unyielding figure of Elijah (for many the voice of conservative moralist Mendelssohn himself) gained a certain grace in additional to his usual sternness in Simon Keenlyside’s hands. Blessed with a legato that could smooth the craggiest of terrains, his was not the most ascetic of readings, but all the better for its controlled beauty. With the period orchestra roughing up the score texturally such melodic rhapsody felt anchored, enabled, and for those still yearning for more edginess there was the dangerous virtuosity of tenor Robert Murray.

Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly rounded out the solo quartet, their operatic experience giving us one of the most touching Widow scene (Joshua) and high drama from Connolly as the doomed Baal-worshipping Queen. Treble Jonty Ward also made an impression in his brief appearance as the Youth, fearless in his approach, and offering a mature purity of tone to rival the step-out soloists from the Gabrieli Consort.
Although directing some of the finest choral singing of this Proms season, McCreesh’s ensemble did at times lose focus, most notably (and unforgivably) among orchestra and soloists; transitions were often lumpy in their pacing and a miniature power struggle came close to derailing the final quartet. Yet sacrifices of tempo and togetherness are to be expected with such large forces in such a space, and it makes the anticipation for the final recording – to be released on McCreesh’s own new label Winged Lion next month – all the greater.

The musical tensions that animate Mendelssohn’s greatest oratorio are the mirror of its themes. As Elijah struggles against the excesses of the Baalites so the composer returns to the classical models of Bach and Handel for the musical purity that might best express his parable. In the cushioned comfort of modern orchestral performances we have drifted ever closer to the denial and decadence of the idol-worshippers. This period performance achieved an authenticity that went beyond the merely musical, speaking directly and with violent conviction to the core of Mendelssohn’s apocalyptic biblical vision.

Iwan Hewett, The Telegraph, 30.8.2011

3 stars

Terror of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece that leads to tears.

The Proms and Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah; two great 19th-century institutions. On Sunday night, they came together. Apart from the vine-tendrils of microphones hanging from the ceiling, the scene could have come from one of those etchings of “monster concerts” you find in old editions of Punch. Ranged across the back were the singers, hundreds of them. The few grey heads belonged to the Wrocl/aw Philharmonic Choir, the others were fresh-faced singers from Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, and the North East Youth Chorale.

The orchestra of the Gabrieli Consort seemed even bigger, but that was partly because of all the 19th- century ironmongery: hoops of brass hanging on music stands for the horn players to change keys, funny-looking slide trumpets, and a monster Contrabass Ophicleide.

They made a splendid and highly-coloured din. In the scene when Jehovah sends flood, fire and earthquakes down on the faithless Israelites (there’s a lot of smiting), the clattering timps and rasping “natural” brass brought a frisson of terror. The music needed it, frankly, as Mendelssohn’s musical apocalypse is a touch milk-and-water.

Where Mendelssohn excels is in that sweetly consoling edification which the Victorians so loved. But this too needs care if it’s not to sound sickly, a danger this performance avoided. Conductor Paul McCreesh made sure the tempos never dragged, and he gave the echoing of phrases between voices a dramatic edge. Of the soloists, Sarah Connolly shone, especially in her invocation to the avenging God, which was uttered as much in sorrow as in anger.

Unfortunately, there was a hollow at the centre of the performance, which was Elijah himself. Not because Simon Keenlyside wasn’t in fine voice or wasn’t emotionally engaged. But his mellifluous baritone is too light for the role and he didn’t seem comfortable dispensing vengeful fire and brimstone. You felt he would have preferred an aria entitled “Can’t we just talk about this?” Yet overall the performance revealed the oratorio’s power to move.

In front of me, an Italian visitor to the Proms was dabbing his tears. We may mock Victorian high-mindedness, but it hasn’t lost its potency yet.

Clare Colvin, Express.co.uk,4.9.2011

MORE blood and thunder epic than solemn oratorio, Mendelssohn’s dramatic Elijah draws on the rich material of the Old Testament in a score that creates all the tension of a battle for power between opposing forces.

On the one hand there is Elijah, a stern, upright and put-upon prophet of the Lord, and on the other the unruly People, a fearsome depiction of mob mentality sung by a lusty 300-strong chorus.

Last week’s Proms performance by the Gabrieli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh was based on the 1846 premiere, replicating its generous Victorian size with an orchestra of more than 120, plus the RAH organ.

The instruments included three rarely heard ophicleides, one of them the only playable contrabass ophicleide in the world that had been brought over especially from New York.It resembles a monstrously elongated tuba.

The chorus of the People comprised the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and British youth choirs: Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir and North East Youth Chorale.

The soloists were led by baritone Simon Keenlyside’s formidable Elijah.

Exhorting God not to let him down in the tasks of bringing rain to the parched land of Israel, or raising the widow’s son from the dead, he brought out the gritty determination of the prophet of Julius Schubring’s libretto, based on the King James Bible.

Elijah’s mocking triumph as the People’s fervent supplications to Baal remain unanswered, “Call him louder! He heareth not,” was pure delight.

With the other soloists, soprano Rosemary Joshua, mezzo Sarah Connolly, tenor Robert Murray and boy singer, treble Jonty Ward, this was as fine a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah as you could hope to hear.

The chorus was the linchpin of the evening though and its description of the fiery chariot that takes Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven nearly blew the Albert Hall into orbit as well. Memorable!

Enthusiasm was the key note too in Hooray For Hollywood, the John Wilson Orchestra’s homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, from the first real movie musical, 42nd Street, by Warner Brothers in 1933, to 20th Century Fox’s 1969 film of Hello, Dolly!

Returning to the Proms for the third year running with the Maida Vale Singers, conductor John Wilson brought a varied team of vocalists.

Sassy, elfin-haired Caroline O’Connor evoked Judy Garland in two songs from A Star Is Born. Clare Teal wistfully pondered Calamity Jane’s Secret Love and Annalene Beechey sparkled as Mary Poppins with the versatile Matthew Ford in Jolly Holiday.

Soprano Sarah Fox and tenor Charles Castronovo teamed up for the romantic West Side Story duet One Hand, One Heart and Castronovo hit the high Cs in traditional operatic style in The Student Prince’s Serenade.

There were moments as well for the audience to sing along, in the toe-tapping Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat and There’s No Business Like Show Business. An evening of sheer, let-your-hair-down joy.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth Paciello July 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Hi Liam,
You may have already found this out, but just to confirm that all Proms are broadcast live on Radio 3, so this will be broadcast on Sunday 28th Aug at 7pm. Then there is a repeat usually 2 or 3 days later in the afternoon again on Radio 3. Also on iplayer for 7 days. Happy listening! Regards Liz

Liam June 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Any word if this will be broadcast?

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