Mendelssohn: Elijah , Barbican 7th March

Barbican HaLL

Elijah or….after the Baal is over


Britten sinfonia and soloists

I love Oratorio – which a dear friend of mine calls the English vice.

But I will confess straight away that I’ve never really liked Elijah. I like much of Mendelssohn and I do not remotely hold fact he was beloved of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert against him – though I must say the notion joining the three of them for an evening piano songs in the one of the overdressed-drawing rooms of Windsor or Osborne House doesn’t exactly fill my imagination with unalloyed rapture.

I decided that it was time to re-visit this work – one that was often performed in the century after Mendelssohn composed it and was a staple of such choirs as the Huddersfield Choral during my childhood and adolescence. I felt there must have been something I has missed during my opinionated and prejudiced youth. I cannot say I heard anything in last Wednesday’s performance to better advise youth’s impetuousity.

Elijah is a good protestant subject for a good protestant Oratorio. The libretto fills the requirement. The text is preachy, sermonising –  full of biblical flourishes that one might expect from a toxic rant on a Sunday given by a white bearded by John Knox from his pulpit in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.Baal worship looms large in Elijah’s story and a show-down between Baal and Jehovah is at the core of this work….

Mendelssohn had already had one go at Oratorio with St Paul. The result had not been happy but it doesn’t seem to have deterred him. For Elijah he once again composes music that eschews emotion or the vivid tunefulness and graceful melodic lines found in his symphonies and overtures.  Instead we get blustery overwrought arias from the prophet and from the chorus ponderous grandiosity with echoes of Lutheran chorale and the sombre sobriety of Bach’s Passions.  An improving subject set to improving music – this is the sort of respectable music of which Lady Bracknell would have thoroughly approved.

Lucy Crow (Soprano) sang well – as did Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the mezzo, who appeared to be wearing Joseph’s Technicolor Dream-coat for the occasion. Andrew Kennedy‘s tenor was rather wild-eyed and uncontrolled and Simon Keenleyside was uneven. I’ve heard Keenleyside sing much better – a few years back he gave an unforgettable Macbeth in the Royal Opera House in Verdi’s account of Shakespeare’s play. The treble William Carne had a bout of nerves and his voice broke uncertainly on his first entry. Keenlyside was evidently and generously kind in giving him his confidence back. The Britten sinfonia played well though one or two of them looked somewhat underwhelmed by the music.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah says worthy… and it exemplifies almost everything I dislike in that late nineteenth century English choral tradition with its serried rows of generously bosomed women in white blouses and black skirts and diner-jacketed men. Those choirs sole purpose seemed to be to raise the moral tone of their audiences with monumental, very loud and very slow paced renditions of Handel’s Messiah; the Bach Passions; Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Elgar’s Gerontius and later Steiner’s Crucifixion and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana…. with encores from Gilbert and Sullivan for light relief.

And it comes as a relief when Elijah’s finally ascends into heaven in his fiery chariot complete with obvious blasts from the brass and chorus. I hope for God’s sake that the choirs of heaven are not eternally singing choruses from Elijah…I’d not wish that upon my worst enemies let alone upon my Creator.


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