Energy and Verve in Sir Andrew’s Elijah

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Elijah: Lisa Milne (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus,Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 18.5.2013 (SRT)

When I reviewed my first Elijah for these pages I confessed that I had always had trouble with the work. Either I have softened in my old age or I have heard some very high quality performances, but either way I’m now much more susceptible to Mendelssohn’s oratorio. True, it still speaks of a bygone era of religious certainty, but that can be appealing in its own, comfortable way; and my ears are now more open to the composer’s sense of dramatic structure, as well as the excellent music. I still wish he had ended it fifteen minutes sooner, but maybe I’ll even have changed my mind on that in a few years’ time.

Tonight’s was undoubtedly a high quality performance to set alongside the others I’ve experienced. At the heart of it lay the vision and direction of Andrew Davis, who clearly loves this work, and I loved the way he crafted the sound of the orchestra so as to point up the contrasts in Mendelssohn’s score. The brass and wind fanfares that punctuate so much of the first part sounded austere and forbidding when they needed to, and the argumentative attack of the strings added real bite to the more rigorous contrapuntal moments. However, there was energy and verve in ample evidence too, and the bustling flow of the strings gave real colour to the evocation of the arrival of the rain at the end of the first part. Special mention, too, should go to the heartfelt cello solo of Christian Elliott at the start of It is enough. I really liked the way Davis underpinned the grandeur of some of the choruses with just the right amount of organ and low brass, adding something special (can we even call it “spiritual”?) to those key moments.

The vocal contributions were every bit as impressive. The RSNO Chorus, while slightly airy of tone at the beginning, grew to produce an impressive sound of earnestness and commitment, rising impressively to the climax of God appearing to Elijah in the second part. It was also a lovely touch to have Lift Thing Eyes sung offstage by the junior chorus, an evocative highlight. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a most impressive Elijah; his voice has the lyrical power to encompass the beauty of the arias in the second part, but also a slight edge that gives extra power to the apocalyptic pronouncements of Part One. The ringing quality of Barry Banks’ tenor stood in pleasing contrast and Lisa Milne poured down balm with her pure, clean soprano. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was an evocative yet authoritative angel, and her take on Oh rest in the Lord was the still highlight of the second part.

Just one question: With a British orchestra, a British chorus, a British conductor and three British soloists, who on earth thought it was a good idea to sing the work in German?

Simon Thompson