Sir Willard White’s Resonant Elijah at the Three Choirs Festival
Three Choirs Festival (4) – Mendelssohn: Eleanor Dennis (soprano); Susan Bickley (contralto); Peter Auty (tenor); Sir Willard White (bass-baritone); Rupert O’Sullivan (Treble); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Peter Nardone (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 25.7. 2016. (JQ)
Mendelssohn – Elijah, Op 70
Mendelssohn composed Elijah for the 1846 Birmingham Triennial Festival and he conducted the premiere himself in August of that year. The Birmingham Festival organisers pulled out all the stops for that first performance, which was given by very large forces in the city’s Town Hall. Apparently, Mendelssohn rehearsed the soloists with orchestra in London prior to the performance and then they all took the train to Birmingham where the choir and yet more orchestral players, recruited locally, were waiting to join in the performance. A few years ago a recording was made which replicated the forces used that day in Birmingham and mighty impressive it sounded (review). The premiere was a tremendous success and the fame of Elijah quickly spread; the Victorian equivalent of ‘going viral’, perhaps? As soon as 1847 the first Three Choirs Festival performance took place – in Gloucester – and the work became an established favourite in the Festival repertoire, second only to Messiah, probably. Anthony Boden’s history of the Three Choirs Festival records that between 1890 and 1929 Elijah was heard at every Festival and then he notes a further 12 performances in the years up to 1986. In the last few decades Festival programmes have become much more widely-based than was the case before World War II and Elijah has become something of a casualty of that process. The last Three Choirs performance, I believe, was at Hereford in 2009 (review).
This evening the Festival was honoured by the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales, President of the Three Choirs Festival Association.
In a second coup the Festival had engaged Sir Willard White to sing the title role. This great singer will be 70 in a few months’ time and I did wonder beforehand if his Festival debut might have been too long delayed. However, any such fears were banished when White established a commanding vocal presence in his very first solo. It wasn’t a perfect performance: there were quite a number of small inaccuracies, especially in recitatives, and there were occasions when I would have liked to hear a greater degree of expression in his singing – one such example was ‘Lord God of Abraham’, which would have benefitted from more ‘give’ on White’s part and from rather more feeling. There were ample compensations, however, not least the sheer pleasure of hearing the rich resonance of Sir Willard’s voice. My seat was about two-thirds down the nave but I had no trouble at all in hearing every word he sang and though there was considerable power to a lot of his singing this was achieved with no discernible effort. He made the demanding and dramatic ‘Is not His word like a fire?’ sound easy and in the section where Elijah challenges the followers of Baal he did so with great authority. Earlier, his part in the duet with the Widow was invested with natural authority. Eventually Elijah took his leave with a dignified account of ‘For the mountains shall depart’. I don’t think the audience will quickly forget their encounter with Willard White’s Elijah.
The other solo roles are less significant in scale and the singers have far less chance to develop their characters. I enjoyed the singing of Eleanor Dennis very much. True, her words weren’t ideally clear but the sound of her voice gave considerable pleasure and she genuinely engaged with the audience, not least as an imploring Widow in Part I. She offered full tone and communicative singing in the other big soprano aria, ‘Hear ye, Israel’ at the start of Part II. Susan Bickley is a Three Choirs regular and over the years I’ve come to value her sheer consistency. Whenever her name appears on the soloists’ roster you know you’re going to hear unaffected, expressive singing delivered in warm, even tone. So it was tonight. Her recitatives were intelligently paced and the calm reassurance and warm tone with which she delivered ‘O rest in the Lord’ summed up, for me, a very satisfying performance.
Alas, Peter Auty was badly miscast in the tenor role. His recitatives were delivered in a prosaic, unpoetic fashion with no sensitivity or any attempt to tell the story – there was, for instance, a distressing lack of gentleness to ‘See now, he sleepeth’. The two arias are among the finest in the tenor oratorio repertoire but both were sung with a lack of finesse or expression and to make matters worse he frequently seemed to approach high notes from below. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by a tenor in this work, whether on disc or live.
Several local singers were called upon to sing subsidiary roles, mainly in small ensembles; all acquitted themselves very well. I admired particularly the three singers, Catriona Holsgrove, Rosie Weston and Charlotte Corderoy, all members of the Festival Chorus, who sang the unaccompanied ‘Lift thine eyes’. They were placed high above the platform on the organ screen from where their clear, bright sound carried down the nave most atmospherically. The treble Rupert O’Sullivan sang the part of The Youth at the end of Part I very well. What a pity that no one had thought to provide him with a stool or chair to sit on after his solo; instead he had to stand, rather awkwardly, at the front of the platform during the long chorus that followed.
However, from that vantage point he would have been able to enjoy the singing of the Festival Chorus who were on top form this evening. Elijah is rich in memorable material for the choir and this Chorus really delivered the goods. They made a fine job of the Baal choruses, vainly imploring the pagan God to put Elijah in his place. The last chorus of Part I was suitably joyful as the People gave thanks for the end of the drought and in Part II, at Jezebel’s prompting, the chorus really turned on Elijah, punching out ‘Woe to him’ thrillingly. But, exciting though these passages were, I was just impressed by the sensitivity with which the choir delivered the less dramatic passages such as the chorus ‘He, watching over Israel’. And a chorus like ‘Behold, God the Lord passed by’ with its contrasts demonstrated the fine attention to dynamics that marked the work of the Festival Chorus all evening. After a performance lasting well over two hours plus interval they gathered themselves once more and gave a spirited, strong rendition of the concluding chorus, the final ‘Amen’ blazing.
The performance was conducted by Peter Nardone, Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral and I must confess that he left me with mixed feelings. The performance didn’t immediately catch fire and it seemed to me that Mr Nardone’s conducting was a little cautious – the overture was, frankly, turgid. Some of his initial tempi seemed a bit lacking in dynamism but after a while the music-making went up a gear; perhaps Mr Nardone was inspired by the drama of the Baal choruses. I felt on several occasions during the evening that the beat lacked sufficient dynamism or incisiveness but perhaps it’s dangerous to rely on what you see of a conductor whose back is facing you. Peter Nardone must have been invigorating his forces on the basis of what we heard from the choir.
The Philharmonia played very well and there were some exciting contributions from the organ, played, I think, by Christopher Allsop, Peter Nardone’s assistant at Worcester. Several times the big choruses were underpinned by satisfyingly deep-voiced organ tone.
Overall this was a performance that I enjoyed very much – as did the audience to judge from the warmth of their applause. It was an evening that lived up to the best of Three Choirs tradition.
One other comment is appropriate, even though it has nothing to do with the music. Towards the end of the performance a member of the audience seated a few rows in front of me was taken ill. The emergency was dealt with by members of the St John’s Ambulance who took care of the patient not only with speed and evident efficiency but also with the minimum of fuss and disruption. This is the second time this month that I’ve attended a concert at which the St John’s Ambulance has been called into action – the first was a concert at Tewkesbury Abbey – and each time I’ve marvelled at the discretion and effectiveness of the response. We’re lucky in this country to have these expert volunteers to deal with emergencies when they arise.