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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit