United Kingdom Mendelssohn: Anita Watson (soprano), Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano), Alexander James Edwards (tenor), Christopher Cull (baritone), Lucy Wallis (girl chorister), Three Spires Singers, Truro Choral Society, Truro Cathedral Choir Girl Choristers and Orchestra / Christopher Gray (conductor), Truro Cathedral. 24.6.2017. (PRB)
This concert involved both the Three Spires Singers and Truro Choral Society, two large-scale ensembles in their own right, who had collaborated only once before, for a performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom back in 2014. Furthermore it added the voices of the Girl Choristers from Truro Cathedral for the Semi Chorus in Part Two. Clearly the logistics of staging an event of this size imposed considerable demands, but here the Cathedral Chapter generously allowed the seating to be turned round. That was the only way in which both choirs, semi chorus and orchestra could be successfully accommodated under the one roof.
I have already reviewed two performances in 2016 by the Three Spires Singers in the Cathedral, in June and in November, when the smaller numbers allowed singers and orchestra to be positioned in, and in front of the Quire, with the audience facing the altar. It was interesting to see whether, and indeed if at all, the overall sound would be affected by the present layout.
From the architectural standpoint, the Quire acts as a means of focusing and concentrating the singing, which it then disseminates in almost funnel-like manner to the congregation or audience in the nave. In their reversed position, this was not going to be similarly possible, but, with the increased numbers on roll, it did not really affect things very much. Perhaps at times the ensemble tautness wavered ever so slightly, and the orchestra was a tad overpowering, particularly the timpani. But the excellence of the choral singing, the strong and youthful lead from the sopranos in particular, the men’s positive contribution, the well-studied attention to diction and characterisation, and sheer enjoyment and enthusiasm put this performance of Mendelssohn’s work back up there with some of the best. When it was first performed in Birmingham in 1846, with an orchestra of 125 and a chorus of 271, to an audience of some two-thousand people, of course it had a powerful effect. But, as time has gone by, and fashions have changed, this very Victorian oratorio has not always found favour since. Indeed it would be fair to say that Elijah is not usually at the top of my all-time favourites’ list.
But the present reading, by conductor Christopher Gray, Director of Music at Truro Cathedral, did so much to redress this, both publicly and for me personally, just by ensuring that there was always sufficient pace in the performance, so that, while tempi were commendably brisk, equally nothing was rushed. Mendelssohn’s music can sometimes reflect the facility with which he could write, and there is always a real need to eschew an almost mawkish feel to some of the arias in particular. Clearly conductor and soloist had both done their homework here. Even in some of the most poignant moments—for example the baritone’s eminently well-known It is enough!—here there was no hint of over-sentimentality, despite the extremely expressive manner with which the cellos delivered their obbligato line.
In fact, the orchestra’s contribution overall was equally impressive, under the assured and musical leadership of Philip Montgomery-Smith. Entries were always confident. The balance between voice and orchestra was well considered throughout, and was probably less affected by them playing in the opposite direction, than the choir.
Given that an oratorio is essentially an opera without staging, costumes or actions, the “lead role” in the former can be every bit as crucial as in the latter art form, in ensuring the work’s success overall. From baritone-soloist Christopher Cull’s very first vocal utterance, it was clear that he had the vocal prowess to bring the role to life. Richness in tone quality, surety in production, clarity of diction and of pitch—these were just some of his musical strengths, which never failed him throughout his long and significantly demanding contribution.
Mendelssohn actually created the soprano part for the “Swedish Nightingale”, Jenny Lind, but she was devastated by the composer’s premature death in 1847, and did not feel able to sing the part for a year afterwards. Australian-born soprano Anita Watson was more than equal to the role, adding some antipodean down-to-earth charm as she so ably negotiated everything that Mendelssohn had challenged her Scandinavian counter-part with, well over 150 years beforehand. Watson matched the strongest fortissimo with the most delicate pianissimo, soared effortlessly between the high notes, but was still able to deliver with real sincerity when called for, while engaging every one of her listeners throughout.
Fellow Australian Catherine Carby was equally sure-footed in her delivery, diction and enunciation, and certainly her mezzo-soprano range fitted the defined tessitura well, even if, perhaps, there was no extra creaminess or warmth sometimes associated with that particular voice range.
Tenor Alexander James Edwards certainly matched the other three soloists well in the final quartet, and was strong in his individual arias. Bottles of water and various other elixirs now seem standard carry-on equipment for singers on stage. Edwards occasionally took recourse to that during the performance to allay, perhaps, just the very occasional roughness at the top of the range—no doubt a combination of slight vocal over-use, and the unseasonable heat of recent days.
One of Gray’s innovations at Truro was the introduction of girl choristers to the Cathedral Choir in 2015, so it was especially apposite that he should select one of the first girl choristers to sing the small but demanding role of the Youth towards the end of Part One. So often this is given to a boy soprano who then finds the high range especially challenging, given no real warm-up. That can so easily turn into a slightly embarrassing episode for all concerned. But nothing of the kind here. Girl chorister Lucy Wallis rose to the occasion with confidence, and despatched the short but nonetheless important part with great clarity of diction, beauty of tone and accuracy of pitch.
In fact it would ultimately be the girl choristers from Truro Cathedral who would steal the show in the end, despite being largely only visible on the night via a number of CCTV monitors placed strategically around the nave. Briefly leaving the podium, Gray conducted his girls in the unaccompanied Angels’ semi-chorus trio Lift thine eyes, which they sang quite beautifully, and in “heavenly” voice, while maintaining perfect pitch throughout. When Gray returned to resume the work, the restart further confirmed just how accurate their pitch had been. There was no undesirable hiatus as can sometimes occur at this juncture.
Mendelssohn often felt the need to make changes to a work, despite its successful premiere, and so, a year later Elijah did not escape this process—“a dreadful disease”, as the composer referred to it. Perhaps the most remarkable revision to the present work score is in the final section of the work, where the celebration of Elijah as a prophet of the Messiah is substantially elaborated. One notable casualty of Mendelssohn’s editing process was, in fact, Lift thine eyes in its original form for solo soprano and contralto, with string and woodwind accompaniment. Chorley, the music critic of the erstwhile Athenaeum magazine, related the story that Mendelssohn had said to him in his merriest manner, “Come, and I will show you the prettiest walk in Birmingham”. Mendelssohn then led Chorley and other friends to the banks of the canal, at Gas Street Basin. There, on the tow-path between the bridges, they walked for more than an hour discussing the oratorio. According to another member of the group, a certain Mr. Moore, it was there and then, amidst the scenery of the coal and cinder heaps, that a sudden thought struck Mendelssohn to change the duet into the now famous trio. Had the composer been present last night, he would surely have witnessed this edit as a pure stroke of genius, such was the exceedingly compelling rendition from the Truro girl choristers.
Despite all the obvious logistic difficulties caused by accommodating more than one large choir into the confines of Truro Cathedral, last night’s quite superb offering suggested that it was all worth the effort on the day. Hopefully it might happen again in the not-too-distant future. It was, in summary, a real tribute to all those who took part in the performance itself, or worked behind the scenes.
To close on this, it was so characteristic of the way everyone in this small Cornish city pulled together for a single cause, to see the Dean of Truro Cathedral at the start of the evening in all his vestment finery deliver a brief opening address and prayer to the packed audience, only then to be seen at the end – now wearing tee-shirt and shorts – helping the scaffolding crew dismantle the choir seating, in readiness for the next service, first thing the following morning.
Philip R Buttall