Music review: BBC Proms - Elijah

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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition