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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

Show Hide image

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State