Magic Moments in Mendelssohn’s Elijah from Hengelbrock and the Balthasar-Neumann-Choir in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mendelssohn: Katharina Konradi (soprano), Marie-Sophie Pollak (soprano), Agnes Kovacs (soprano), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (alto), Steve Davislim (tenor), Michael Nagy (bass), Balthasar-Neumann-Choir, soloists from the Children’s Chorus of the Choral Academy of Dortmund, Tonhalle Orchestra/Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich 7.3.2019. (JR)

Thomas Hengelbrock (c) Florence Grandidier
Thomas Hengelbrock (c) Florence Grandidier

Mendelssohn – Elijah Op.70

The story of Elijah is found in the Old Testament; it begins by introducing the state of affairs for the people of Israel. They had, for many years, been governed by kings (many of them evil). God was troubled with what the people were experiencing and he delivered his prophet, Elijah, to guide to them out of their suffering.

Elijah confronts the evil king, Ahab, about being the cause of problems. Elijah challenges Ahab to a demonstration of his deity, Baal, versus the God of Elijah at Mount Carmel. The challenge is to offer sacrifices to their respective deities and see which one can start a fire to prove their divinity. Ahab’s prophets pray for hours to Baal without success. When it is Elijah’s turn, God sends down fire and the people of Israel rejoice. That’s it, in a nutshell.

The prophet Elijah has ever since held a very special place in Jewish hearts; it is said he is present at every circumcision. Mendelssohn, who converted to the Lutheran faith for practical reasons (baptized at the age of seven, on Bach’s birthday), remained covertly a Jew at heart. At the age of 20, in 1829, he had effectively unearthed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and its rediscovery led to a revival for large-scale choral works, predominantly in Britain and Germany. Mendelssohn then explored the oratorios of Handel. Mendelssohn’s first attempt at an oratorio was St. Paul (Paulus in German), but ten years later his much greater success was Elijah (Elias in German), first performed in Birmingham in 1846.

Thomas Hengelbrock, until recently Chief Conductor of the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra of Hamburg (formerly the Northern German Radio Symphony Orchestra), founded the Balthasar-Neumann-Choir in 1991. Confusingly Neumann (1687-1753) was not actually a musician at all, but a renowned architect in baroque times. The choir is perhaps Germany’s closest equivalent to Britain’s Monteverdi Choir, and they have a similar very high standard. Comprising some sixty singers, each of them can (and often does) step forward to be a soloist in concert.

Hengelbrock, who trained as a violinist, stood tall without need of a podium and without a baton, befitting his adherence to historically informed practice, and conducted an authoritative performance of this major choral work. Whilst John Eliot Gardiner may have more flair, Hengelbrock certainly packs a punch. His choir is magnificent, all registers sounding equally firm and audible, clearest German diction, not unexpectedly, intonation and timing faultless. The provisional home for the Tonhalle Orchestra, the Tonhalle Maag, turns out not to have the best acoustics for a large-scale choral work as the sound can at times be muddy. When the choir was at full stretch, the sound was not as thrilling as it can be in other acoustics. The orchestra was on occasion too loud, and the woodwind often inaudible – Simon Fuchs’s splendid oboe contribution close to the end of the work being a notable exception.

Hengelbrock has recorded the work just a couple of years ago and his Elijah then, Michael Nagy, not a member of his choir, was on stage at the Tonhalle in the same role. His diction was crystal clear, always expressive, his firm and rich baritone perfect for the role; he rarely needed to look at the score. He overshadowed the Australian tenor, Steve Davislim, who was rather anodyne in comparison, though he came into his own in his final aria ‘Da werden die Gerechten leuchten’.

The soprano soloists were all immaculate, especially when singing together, but one female singer stood out – the alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl, the warmest of voices.

The young treble from Dortmund (name not attributed in the programme) was first-rate; no sign of nerves whatsoever and a pure, angelic voice.

Hengelbrock chose not to bring his own orchestra but rely on local forces, who served him well, even if there was some visible use of vibrato. The brass section coped with their old instruments admirably. The orchestra’s playing was full of energy and delight throughout.

Many moments in the work were particularly magical: the Overture thrilling and vigorous, Lehmkuhl in her arias as the Angel, Nagy in his fiery passages and in his meltingly beautiful aria ‘Herr Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels’ and the chorus in its many rousing interjections and contributions. Sadly, instead of a final silence after the last chord, a mobile phone chipped in – not a moment of magic.

John Rhodes

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