Mendelssohn’s final oratorio (dying of strokes just 15 months later) is filled with all manner of brilliant imagery, stubborn faith, death in the name of God, banishment, drought and the final, hopeful, statement that “the glory of the Lord shall ever reward you.”
On its own (having joined forces with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra for the Festival’s opening performances of Fidelio—cross-reference below) the Mahler Chamber Orchestra proved to be a disciplined, attentive ensemble with a pair of ear-pleasing wooden flutes (having just heard Jacques Zoon’s Poulenc Sonata with Hélène Grimaud a few hours earlier), a beautifully honed cello section (put to excellent use in “Es ist genug!—“It is enough!”)—even after one of the vagaries of concert life forced one of their number to discreetly head backstage to replace his out-of-service bow, and a three-man double bass section that truly played as one.
The 40-voice Swedish Radio Choir gave a vivid account of the wide-ranging chorus parts (with the men slightly outshining the women in texture, tone and pitch) and provided more-than-competent solo voices (notably the Angels’ double quartet “Nun auch der Bach vertrocknet ist”—“Now Cherith’s brook is dried up”) when required—later, the three Angels—so Die Zauberflöte-like in hue—needed a more stable alto foundation to truly reach heavenly heights.
The soloists were steadfastly anchored by Thomas Quasthoff who had only four days earlier given a memorable recital with Hélène Grimaud (cross-reference below). Once past the early extended numbers (the brief, prophetic introduction was superb), the stellar bass-baritone hit his stride (“Herr, Gott Abrahams”—“Lord God of Abraham”) and declaimed the rest way of the way with customary aplomb (not least of which was “Der Herr hat dich erhoben aus dem Volk”—“The Lord hath exalted thee from among the people”—replete with a spectacular change of register.
Tenor Michael Schade was a constant pleasure—literally appearing out of nowhere in “Sieh, er schläft unter dem Wacholder in der Wüste”—“See, now he sleepeth beneath a juniper tree in the wilderness”, and blended effectively with his colleagues in the quartets.
Soprano Julia Kleiter gave the capacity crowd a great deal of pleasure with her dramatic sense as well as varied and controlled dynamics (as witness “Höre, Israel”—Hear ye, Israel”). Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink would benefit from a greater array of colour (diminishing the vibrato speed as the music softens would certainly heighten the effect).
Which leaves us with conductor Daniel Harding.
Returning to the opening paragraph of this article, one might have expected a considerably richer palette of musical results than were created in the concert hall.
Most assuredly, the energy, passion and commitment were there, but the physical gestures were so limited that it’s entirely understandable why the intended vast artistic rainbow was reduced to the basic primaries—pastels, ingenious mixes and multi-textured combinations seldom made their way to the canvas.
The music’s rich harmonic plot and sublime subtext were also given short shrift: major cadences merely ending, not resolving (and falling sevenths left hidden in the distant background; suspensions were devoid of tension; unexpected changes sailed by with scant notice).
On the plus side, the experienced maestro knew the hall and let the acoustic “ring” work to the benefit of all. What little bits from the organ that were allowed to peek through the orchestral/choral sound only teased the ear for more.
To be sure, these ears were recently spoiled by the Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony and Chorus recording (Telarc, 1995) which delivers a sonic and musical knockout.
Still, the rapturous, sincere applause that was freely given by the audience belied almost every statement made thus far—the public hath said.
Sometimes, like Elijah, this critic feels abandoned in his art, wandering the concert wilderness, hoping for a reaffirming drink from the cup of excellence to quench the parched thirst for musical truth. JWR
Telarc 80389, 1995, 132 min.
Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Shaw turns in a spectacular account of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece. The deservedly famed chorus provides a solid foundation and first-rate balance (“He that shall endure to the end” is an unforgettable example of the skills of conductor and choristers alike; only the premature tenors in “Amen” mar the result).
Much to the delight of any speaker setup, the organ becomes an involved player. The soloists also add much to the mix. Thomas Hampson is a convincing Elijah despite a tendency to push rather than relax into the lines. Marietta Simpson is a truly regal Queen, particularly deft in her mastery of seamless tempo shifts (“The Lord Hath Exalted Thee”). Jerry Hadley magically combines his exquisite sense of phrase and stellar tone production, making this one of the best Obadiah interpretations on disc.
Finally, it’s as refreshing as spring rain to hear Shaw not only execute Mendelssohn’s incredibly detailed harmonic plan, but also manage to feel every cadence, giving the multi-part, multi-layered work a compelling sense of completeness that others can only hope to achieve. JWR