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Bach Choir nails Elijah

By , 20/06/2009

Elijah from the Bach Choir (conductor: Stephen Rowley) and the Palmerston North Choral Society. (conductor: Alison Stewart)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Saturday 20 June 2009

For me, Elijah is a problematic work. In terms of its fans, it seems to draw a line in the sand between paid-up choral music groupies, particularly traditional deists, and other music lovers whose interests lie, to varying degrees, with chamber music, or orchestral music, or opera.

The latter groups suspect that the popularity of Elijah derives from its religious subject, and from its kinship with the great choral works on religious topics by Bach and Handel.  In New Zealand and other ex-British countries, it might have more to do with the musical tastes of the expanding middles classes in Victorian England whose social aspirations led them both towards religious grandiloquence and socially-driven enthusiasm for what they saw as great music. Those characteristics came with the 19th century immigrants from England to places like New Zealand.

German, Jewish-born, Lutheran-convert Mendelssohn epitomised most of that: well-educated, cultivated and hard-working, enjoying an intimacy with the British Royal family, with an obviously great musical talent starting as an infant prodigy, and an output of music that echoed the great German composers but eschewed the scorned modernities and non-classical features of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner.

His is well-written music, with a few numbers that are both popular and worthy.

As for its religious subject, I am bemused by it, seeming to buy into the primitive violence and religious intolerance that lies at the heart of the Old Testament.

The oratorio was originally set to the German Bible text but it was adapted to the King James version for its Birmingham premiere. I’d have preferred the former, or better, in Arabic or Tagalog, where the words would not matter.

However, the performance was generally admirable. Jonathan Berkahn accompanied on the church’s main organ; as in his work with the Menotti and Weill radio theatre pieces a week before, his was a highly impressive contribution. That was clear from the outset, as he supported Peter Russell singing Elijah’s introduction in sober, velvet tones, and then in the interesting Overture, though Mendelssohn made no effort to depict the character of the primitive, 9th century Hebrew story that followed. In truth, the music itself that follows is far more coloured by Bach-driven influence and conventional Christian piety than by any feeling of the barbarous nature of Old Testament society.  (In time, will our descendants revere stories glorifying the behaviour of the people of Bosnia, of Irak, of Sri Lanka, of Northern Ireland?) 

The conducting was shared between the conductors of each choir – Alison Stewart with Part I and Stephen Rowley the second. I could detect no differences in their approaches, no doubt because of the fusion, in rehearsal of any stylistic individuality that each might have brought to it.  The energy and accuracy, clear diction and fine ensemble singing were a credit to both.

The opening chorus presented an even, balanced sound and the benefit of more than doubling the normal size of the Bach Choir with Palmerston singers was evident straight away. Adequate men’s voices provided good foundations for the sound and we were not so exposed to the inevitably uneven quality of individual voices with a smaller ensemble. I was struck particularly by the men’s voices in the first chorus of Part II, ‘Be not afraid…’. And soon after, the rather unchristian ‘Woe to him, he shall perish….’ was appropriately strong and cruel – a foreign import, from Jermiah, a century after Elijah.

That standard was maintained throughout, for example, with distinctive calm in No 9, ‘Blessed are the men who fear him…’ (actually from Psalm 112). 

The first duet by soprano Nicola Holt and mezzo Felicity Smith was a further encouraging sign of the quality of the singing throughout. Both singers, with European training, have voices of considerable polish and character and their performances were always well-studied and convincing.

The tenor role was taken by William Parry. As Obadiah, his voice was strident, and his phrasing slightly uncomfortable; that was perhaps partly a problem of singing the not particularly euphonious English (taken here from the book of Joel, which is quite unrelated to the story of Elijah as told in 1 Kings).  The effort to enunciate clearly, as he did, was a bit at odds with the forming of flowing musical lines. When Obadiah reappeared at the end of Part I and in Part II, his voice and the musical line seemed much more at ease.

There were omissions, a major one No 5, the Chorus of the People, ‘Yet doth the Lord see it not…’, dictated by time constraints.

Trouble with the rhythm of the words struck me here and there, with the chorus of the Priests of Baal, ‘Baal, we cry to thee…’; what an unmusical word ‘extirpate’ is! 

Alto Felicity Smith was prominent at the early stage, as an Angel, very comfortable at the top, and with excellent control of dynamics – lovely soft notes.

The scene between Elijah and the Widow, soprano Nicola Holt, was very successful, starting with the Widow’s plainly characterized statement, ‘What have I to do with thee…’. Russell caught the consoling quality of Elijah’s response well, even if his voice isn’t really suited to the higher notes.

From a dramatic point of view it was odd, however, as they seemed to talk past each other; but that’s oratorio and is perhaps it’s why Elijah and other oratorios are sometimes staged, opera-like.

Later, Holt took the role of the Youth, which was beautiful, with clarity and refined dynamics at the top. And she made a fine impression again in the Air at the start of Part II, polished and well characterized.

There are, admittedly, effective dramatic moments, such as the Priests’ call to Baal where the chorus acquires a fine, ringing passion and heavy ascending and descending scales on the organ support their impact. And the organ leads peacefully to Elijah’s aria, ‘Lord God of Abraham…’. Not for the only time, of course, I was bemused by the composer’s (not to say the prophet’s) glorifying of Elijah’s command that the prophets of Baal be slain – after all, they were only doing their job.

Peter Russell of course carried most of the solo singing; his baritone voice has a very distinctive timbre, smooth, flexible but perhaps better adapted to song and lyrical roles than to dramatic ones. So those aspects of Elijah’s speeches that expressed sympathy or gentleness better represented his talent than the calls to vengeance or the proclamations of religious bigotry.

Perhaps alto Felicity Smith shared my feeling, for I enjoyed the uncharacteristic gentleness with which she sang the harsh echoing sentiment (‘Wo unto them who forsake him…’, presumably by the People, and like much else, is taken from another ‘foreign’ text, Hosea – 8th century BC, with nothing to do with Elijah).

In spite of my difficulties with the subject and its handling by Mendelssohn, and to some degree with the musical style (and I have to point out that contemporary opinion is still admiring: for example it’s among the 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear before You Die), I found myself engaged by the performance. The fairly small audience – I guess around 100 – may have been due to the clash with an NZSO subscription concert which the choirs ought to have been able to avoid. It certainly deserved a much larger crowd.

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