MENDELSSOHN: Elijah, Op. 70 – Marlis Petersen (sop.) / Lioba Braun (mezzo) / Maximilian Schmitt (tenor) / Thomas Oliemans (bari.)/RIAS Kammerchor / Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/ Hans‐Christoph Rademann – Accentus ACC30356 (2 CDs); TT 1h, 25m (3/25/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
Recorded live, Rademann’s Elijah is long on drama, managing to downplay the sentimental elements of this flawed masterpiece.
It’s easy to forget that Felix Mendelssohn wrote operas. Two of them, Der Oncle von Boston and Die Heimkehr aus die Fremde, were written for private performance only and the one opera which Mendelssohn wrote for public performance, Die Hochzeit des Comacho, was treated so dismissively by the critics that he decided to foreswear opera composition altogether. This, at the ripe old age of eighteen.
Well, he didn’t turn his back entirely on opera, considering German mythology and even Shakespeare’s The Tempest as possible subjects, but he never committed to any project leaving only sketches. However, following the model of one of his musical heroes, Handel, Mendelssohn created in Elijah an oratorio that is fully operatic in its more dramatic passages. Like Handel’s Saul and Belshazzar, Elijah contains a series of dramatic scena that have managed to win it a place in the choral repertory despite its shortcomings.
Elijah was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival and premiered in the English city in 1846. It was instantly praised as a masterwork and became a mainstay of the English choral music scene. Later critics, however, beginning with that famous anti-Semite and enemy of Mendelssohn Richard Wagner, began to call attention to the oratorio’s greatest failing, a sometimes mawkish sentimentality masquerading as piety. Wagner scoffed at the sober devotion with which Victorian audiences approached the work, and critics after Wagner found even less to praise in the piece. Like Mendelssohn himself, Elijah has never fully recovered from this critical drubbing, though the composer is now held in much higher esteem than he was in the not-too-distant past, and Elijah is still valued for its aforementioned dramatic intensity.
Best of all is the scene in which Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to call on their god to fire their offering to him. When they fail, Elijah calls down fire from heaven, proving the emptiness of the priests’ faith, after which he orders the Israelites to stone them to death. Elijah’s great aria Ist nicht die Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer (“Is not the Lord’s word like a fire”) is Mendelssohn the vocal composer at his very best. Here and elsewhere, he manages to capture the all-consuming “jealousy” that Elijah has for the Lord, and the prophet is overall a powerful creation in Mendelssohn’s hands. Other potent scenes include the approach of rain that ends the great drought in Israel; Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel; and the wind, earthquake, and fire that proceed the appearance of God on Mount Horeb.
Elijah was carefully planned by Mendelssohn, beginning with Elijah’s call for a drought in Israel, cast in an ominous d minor. The musical argument of the work moves us from this dark minor-key opening to the radiant D major conclusion. Along the way, Mendelssohn incorporates a number of motives that emblemise actions or emotions. The first is a baleful, chromatic four-note passage—A, E#, D, A# played double forte—that signifies God’s wrath. This innovation of Mendelssohn’s became a standard in nineteenth-century oratorio—and probably gave Wagner the impetus for his system of operatic leitmotifs in the Ring cycle.
But then there are the maudlin bits in Elijah, including the scene in which the prophet raises the widow’s son from the dead—and just about every musical utterance of Elijah’s friend, the counselor Obadiah. I have to confess that it’s passages like these that make me prefer Elijah in the original German, which provides some welcome emotional distancing for me. (The work was translated into English for the Birmingham premiere.) If you want to hear what I mean, listen to Jerry Hadley’s nearly insufferable portrayal of Obadiah in Robert Shaw’s mostly fine English version on Telarc (CD80389).
Among German versions, I now rate Hans‐Christoph Rademann’s very highly. He favors brisk tempi, which helps to whip up the drama, yet he doesn’t slight the many attractive lyrical passages, such as the tender chorus Siehe, der Hüter Israel’s schälft noch schlummer nicht (“He, watching over Israel, slumbers not”) and the ravishingly beautiful (at least to me) Heilig, ist Gott der Herr (“Holy is God the Lord”). Rademann has excellent soloists almost to a man (and woman), though mezzo-soprano Lioba Braun’s singing has a matronly, aloof air about it.
Rademann’s chorus is extremely well-drilled and is exciting in its big numbers such as Der Herr ging verüber (“Behold, God the Lord passed by”) and Und der Prophet Elias brach hervor (“Then did Elijah the prophet break forth”). Plus the authentic-instruments band, at least as recorded live, is thrilling, especially the low brass (trombones and ophecleide—great to hear that old instrument really hold forth). The recording itself is excellent, full and forward, yet with a nice sense of depth and spaciousness. I noticed only one spot of choral overload, but then Mendelssohn’s chorus often sings at the top of its collective lungs.
There are other fine Elijahs in German, including Frieder Bernius’ (Carus) and, so they say, Philippe Herreweghe’s (Harmonia mundi; I haven’t heard it). But Rademann’s is a solid choice even in such company, and I thoroughly recommend it.
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