New York Philharmonic/Gilbert – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Mendelssohn
Elijah, Op.70 [Sung in William Bartholomew’s English version]

Twyla Robinson (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano) & Benjamin P. Wenzelberg (boy-soprano)

New York Choral Artists

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert


Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 10 November, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeMendelssohn became fascinated early on with the strict vocal church style of the Roman school, the tonal richness of the Venetian style and the ideally shaped melodic lines of the Neapolitan. His two oratorios, “Elijah” and “St Paul”, have won acclaim the world over. Mendelssohn was particularly attracted to the biblical story about Elijah because of the rain miracle it relates: “With such a subject as Elijah, as really with any Old Testament character, except possibly Moses, it seems to me that the dramatic element must predominate, the people must be introduced speaking and acting as living persons, but it must not, Heaven forbid!, become a tone painting, but a perceptible world, as in every chapter of the Old Testament, and the idea and emotion … all should come across to us through the mouths and manner of the participants.” Mendelssohn cobbled together the text from various biblical sources. During last year’s bicentennial of the composer’s birth, a few scholars suggested that in writing the oratorio Mendelssohn attempted to re-connect with his Jewish heritage. Although he professed interest in his ancestral faith, there is no evidence that he had any intention of taking that interest any further, and he never wrote any music for Jewish liturgy.

“Elijah” is organized in two relatively equal parts. Notwithstanding the absence of a continuous plot, the oratorio is built upon extensive powerful episodes, such as the invocation of Baal by the Baal priests, contrasted with tender expression of faith, such as Elijah’s simple prayer (‘Lord God of Abraham’). The musical setting of the rain miracle is one of the most remarkable episodes in the oratorio repertory for its dramatic presentation and use of the chorus as an active participant in the scene. Although the second part of the oratorio has fewer dramatic moments, it is richer in lyrical passages, such as the beautiful soprano aria ‘Hear O Israel’, written for Jenny Lind, and the succeeding powerful chorus ‘Be not afraid’. Elijah’s aria ‘It is enough’ is rich in personal and intimate expressivity, though less well-known as the female trio ‘Lift up thine eyes’. Modern harmony and instrumentation is noticeable in the well nuanced episode of the widow Zarephath, who mourns her son but when Elijah enters can transform her lament into a hopeful prayer. The influence of, if not the inspiration, for this work is clearly Handel, not by way of imitation but by development of the new dramatic possibilities he introduced. As an example, Elijah’s aria ‘Is Not His Word Like Fire’ has overtones of Handel’s aria ‘But Whom May Abide’ from “Messiah”.

Alan Gilbert’s approach to the work was straightforward and basically conservative. While respectful of the soloists, he sought to elicit enthusiasm, intensity, and dramatic strength in powerful choral passages, such as ‘The fire descends from heaven’ and ‘Woe to him!’, while gradually heightening the tension and sense of mystery during the opening section of the chorus ‘Behold, God the lord passed by!’ from Part II. All forces seemed inspired during the chorus ‘Thanks be to God’ that ends Part I. The New York Philharmonic was in top form, whether when simply accompanying the singers or executing purely orchestral passages. Special accolades to the cello section for beautiful playing to open Elijah’s aria ‘It is enough!’.

An impressive group of vocal soloists enhanced the performance substantially. Gerald Finley led the way in the arduous title role with exceptional artistry. His rich, vibrant and consistently secure voice, together with his impressive dramatic sense, gave the impression that he had the full measure of the prophet’s demeanor, combining demonstrative assertion with tender sympathies and fervent pleas for his people, the former exemplified by ‘Take all the prophets’ and the latter particularly evident in ‘Lord God of Abraham. He sang the sorrowful ‘It is enough!’ so beautifully that the audience was thoroughly enraptured. Twyla Robinson has a powerful, dramatic voice and sang with heartfelt expression and sensitivity. Her duet with Elijah in Part I and her aria ‘Hear ye, Israel’ to open Part II were memorable. Jennifer Johnson’s clear, resonant and full-toned voice, as well as her ardent manner of expression, sang ‘Woe unto them’ and ‘O rest in the lord’ in Part II. Allan Clayton and Alice Coote also performed admirably. A member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, appeared in the second balcony, stage left, to sing his few lines.

The sizeable New York Choral Artists performed admirably, but lacked sufficient strength in the basses. No matter how ardently they tried, the chorus-members could not completely overcome the effects of the dry acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall that occasionally caused the full sound to become unfocussed. Toward the end of the performance, a slight degree of weariness in the orchestra and chorus set in, but this was soon overcome in the final chorus, which ended the work and cued with resounding cheers from the audience.

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