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.