When Elijah premiered in Birmingham on 26 August 1846, its reception was instant encomium. The Times observed of the occasion, ‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening. It was as though enthusiasm, long checked, had suddenly burst its bonds and filled the air with shouts of exultation.’ The work, a traditional oratorio grounded in the Old Testament of the Bible and culminating in the triumph of the one true God over primitive blasphemy, appealed at once to contemporary Victorian sensibilities. Prince Albert himself wrote a personal inscription to Mendelssohn’s score: ‘To the noble artist who, though encompassed by the Baal-worship of false art, by his genius and study has succeeded, like another Elijah, in faithfully preserving the worship of true art…to him is this written in grateful remembrance by Albert.’ There seems a nice degree of symmetry in thinking that nearly two-hundred and sixty-five years to the day of the Birmingham premiere, a capacity audience at the Royal Albert Hall greeted a Proms performance of this now infrequently heard work with what was surely no grossly dissimilar level of approbation.
Elijah has admittedly endured a complicated history following its initial success. Though it undeniably boasts moments of transcendent power, especially in its often monumental choral writing, it was a traditional composition adhering to a familiar form at a time when composers like Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner were challenging the conventions of what music could be. The staid, easy religiosity of such oratorio staples, beloved as it was by mainstream Victorian culture, was derogated by the likes of Wagner and modern critics such as George Bernard Shaw alike. Still, Elijah served as one of nineteenth century music’s most eloquent defenses of the traditional musical conventions of the eighteenth century, an at times spectacular edifice of old-fashioned aesthetic values standing against radicalism in music. If some parts impress less than others and it gradually lost favour with audiences and critics as the twentieth century advanced, it nevertheless remains a bold statement of the heights to which the oratorio genre could aspire.
Prom 58 served as a surprisingly eloquent reminder of this. Comprising choral and orchestral forces that roughly correspond to that which would have been used in the 1856 Birmingham performance, the result was awe-inspiring: a total chorus of over three-hundred singers joining an orchestra of some one-hundred and thirty players. This included the rarely heard instrumentation provided by three serpents, two ophicleides, and the world’s only known remaining playable contrabass ophicleide (on loan from New York). If the intention was to evoke a level of similitude to the orchestral palette of the original performance, one cannot help conceding that every tonal shading of Mendelssohn’s elegant score was adumbrated with flair.
Indeed, flair is perhaps not the word; where the lineup of four principals was world-class by any standard, it says a great deal that it was the colossal energy of conductor Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort & Players and their supporting choirs – numbering no fewer than five – that remains most etched in one’s memory. The sheer scale of the performance could not help dazzling, particularly in the Albert Hall, which is surely at its best when employed in the service of such a massive choral work. Following Elijah’s stern prophecy of the draught that is to plague Israel for three years running, the orchestra launched into the overture with an urgency that swept through the strings and made the scene, as the performance as a whole, generally riveting. Mr. McCreesh’s pacing was ideal, equally sensitive to gestures grand as well as intimate. The soft colouring of more lyrical passages, especially those of the female principals, was meticulously delineated. Yet the tempi throughout were marked by vim, the orchestra dynamically carrying the full charge of Mendelssohn’s orchestration.
Yet nowhere was this energy more apparent than in the concentrated force of the evening’s choruses. The Gabrieli Consort was joined by Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, and Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir; the combined effect was glorious. The opening chorus after the overture, ‘Help, Lord! Wilt thou destroy us?’, formed a multi-hued cry of despair that overflowed the hall. The soprano voices offered a gleaming plea for relief whilst lower octaves thundered menacingly; the consoling beauty of ‘He, watching over Israel’ was granted as potent expression as the booming majesty of ‘Behold! God the Lord passed by!’ The sheer spectacle of several hundred trained chorus members bringing Elijah so vibrantly to life made the performance a sight to behold in and of itself; combined with the coruscating strings, crashing timpani, and majestic playing of the Albert Hall’s great organ by William Whitehead, the first half closed with a redounding chorus of ‘Thanks be to God!’ that filled the massive space of the hall to the rafters with a hymn to salvation.
Never mind that an assembly of infidels had just been led outside to be slaughtered in cold blood – but then, what is an Old Testament story without the righteous recrimination of Jehovah to destroy the unbelieving where it may?
Of course, the occasional unevenness of Elijah would not have been so easily glossed over were it solely for the presence of a superb choral voice and driving orchestra; and for the rest, the evening’s soloists excelled. Sarah Connolly, Rosemary Joshua, Robert Murray, and – above all – the Elijah of Simon Keenlyside were the perfect complement to the laudable performance evoked by Mr. McCreesh. The female principals lent a heartfelt emotional core to the work, Ms. Joshua’s radiant soprano contributing exquisitely to the quartet ‘O! come everyone that thirsteth’ as well as a graceful “Hear ye, Israeli”. Ms. Connolly showed her usual musical intelligence and interpretive sophistication, perhaps heard to best effect in her vehement denunciation as Jezebel of Elijah before he is exiled to the wildnerness. Her wrathful mezzo-soprano not only survived the difficult acoustic of the hall, it soared with the accustomed richness of its timbre and the strong emotive force at its core. Her sensitive rendition of “O rest in the Lord” was particularly beautiful.
Mr. Murray did eloquent justice to the role of Obadiah, the purity of his tenor apt complement to the darker register of the other male lead. In the latter role, Mr. Keenlyside was striking; his performance only seemed to grow in strength as the evening wore on. The contrast between his impassioned denunciation of Ahab and Jezebel and his anguished resignation once he has been exiled in ‘It is enough; O Lord, now take away my life’ showed the versatility of his voice at its best. If one could imagine a more robust voice in the role, one would be hard pressed to find a more refined or emotionally invested one.
The principals were augmented by the wonderful treble contribution of Jonty Ward, announcing the fateful return of rain to Israel’s desolate landscape. Felicitously, Mr. McCreesh, the Gabrieli Consort & Players, and the evening’s principals will be recording Elijah in Watford this week for CD release next year. For those not at the evening’s performance and less familiar with Mendelssohn’s work, it will surely make the perfect introduction.
For those fortunate enough to have been at the Royal Albert Hall for the performance itself, however, the torrential wall of choral and orchestral sound that so ecstatically filled its final bars is not liable to be soon forgotten.
John E de Wald
Photographs (c): Chris Christodoulou; Uwe Arens (Keenlyside)