Prom 56: Exemplary Elijah

Elijah, Op.70

Elijah – Alastair Miles (bass)
The Widow – Janice Watson (soprano)
An Angel – Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
The Queen – Rachael Lloyd (mezzo-soprano)
Obadiah – Kim Begley (tenor)
Ahab – Thomas Walker (tenor)
The Youth – Alexander Main-Ian (treble)
Rebecca Nash (soprano)
Daniel Jordan (bass-baritone)
Darren Jeffery (bass)

Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
Philharmonia Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 1 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Never was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art”. So reported “The Times” following Elijah’s first performance at Birmingham Town Hall on 26 August 1846.

Whether or not one shares the view of this oratorio as being a great work, there is no doubt of its immense popularity (although this was only its third Proms performance) and, indeed, the affection in which it is held by generations of singers and concert-goers. Already predictable in style when composed, Mendelssohn nevertheless tapped in effectively to the musical taste – particularly British musical taste – of the time, much to the wrath of many of his contemporaries, notably Richard Wagner.

Kurt Masur adopted an approach that seized on the dramatic implications of the score and, mercifully, ensured that there was no unnecessary lingering even in the most restrained and contemplative movements. The opening recitative – an unorthodox way of beginning an oratorio – found Alastair Miles in commanding and authoritative voice. Mendelssohn wrote that he imagined the prophet as “strong, zealous and even bad-tempered, angry and brooding”, and Miles certainly had no difficulty in conveying these qualities, but I missed a more gentle and resigned approach at reflective points such as in the poignant aria “It is enough” where the cellos played most beautifully.

Other soloists were also impressive – Kim Begley a strong, operatic Obadiah and Janice Watson sympathetic as the Widow. A word of praise, too, for the treble Alexander Main-Ian for delivering his lines with considerable confidence.

Many performances (and recordings) of Elijah choose to ignore Mendelssohn’s allocation of some numbers to soloists, but Masur rightly insists on following the composer’s directions and so the Double Quartet, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee”, and the well-known trio, “Lift thine eyes” gave the requisite contrast to the big choral sections. The choral singing was superb throughout, responsive to dynamics and the shaping of phrases. Entries were unanimous as were word-endings. The cries to Baal were suitably impassioned, and the precision of rhythms helped prevent any muddiness of texture.

The London Philharmonic was on excellent form, with warm-toned strings and characterful and expressive woodwind solos. I would have preferred less-reticent timpani, but this was as convincing an account of Elijah as one is likely to encounter.

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