A Fitting Celebration of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir’s 145th Anniversary

10/06/2019

Mendelssohn, Elijah: Elaine McDaid (soprano); Dawn Burns (alto); Conor Breen (tenor); Kevin Neville (bass); Belfast Philharmonic Choir; Ulster Orchestra / Stephen Doughty (conductor); David Stevens (0rgan), Ulster Hall, Belfast, 7.6.2019. (RB)

When the Belfast Philharmonic Choir (‘The Phil’) was formed in 1874 they chose to sing Mendelssohn’s Elijah at their first performance.  They did so as they regarded this as a work which would place them firmly on the city’s cultural map.  In this, the year of their 145th anniversary, the Phil joined forces with the Ulster Orchestra and four soloists from Northern Ireland Opera to perform Mendelssohn’s great oratorio once again.

Elijah depicts events in the life of the Biblical prophet, taken from the first and second book of Kings in the Old Testament.  Mendelssohn uses the Baroque oratorios of Bach and Handel as models although he infuses the work with his own brand of lyricism and with Romantic colours and textures.  He uses conventional oratorio forms such as recitatives and arias and other hybrid forms such as recitative with choir for dramatic effect.  The work is full of powerful dramatic scenes such as Elijah’s great contest with the prophets of Baal, the resurrection of the widow’s son, the prophet’s flight from Queen Jezebel and his final ascension into heaven in a chariot of fire.

Stephen Doughty brought Mendelssohn’s great dramatic narrative to life.  The tempi were spot on and he ensured an excellent balance between the orchestra and singers throughout the evening.  The dramatic scenes in the oratorio were brought vividly to life.  Elijah’s great showdown with the prophets of Baal was immensely powerful and climactic, the resurrection of the widow’s son allied intimacy with spirituality while the prophet’s ascent into heaven was full of awe and wonder.  Doughty injected pace into the narrative when required and ensured an overarching coherence.

The Phil did a terrific job with Mendelssohn’s great choruses.  They produced a powerful, focused sound in the arresting opening chorus and they managed to sustain the demanding Baal choruses magnificently.  Occasionally, when choir and orchestra were both firing on all cylinders some of the diction got lost although the quality of the sound remained very good.  The intonation was excellent in the a cappella sections and the Trio, ‘Lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help’ was exceptionally fine.  Individual members of the Phil took on solo roles in the work and Rebekah Devlin from the youth choir was superb in the role of the Youth.

The four soloists did well for the most part.  Kevin Neville did a reasonably good job with Elijah’s recitatives and arias.  He produced a nice polished sound and the intonation was very good.  On occasion I would have welcomed more vocal heft, particularly when singing in lower tessitura.  The performance of, ‘Is not his word like a fire’ was a little untidy but the section with the people and the youth immediately after this was excellent.  Conor Breen produced a nice reedy sound and he brought a lovely lyrical flow to, ‘If with all your hearts ye truly seek me’.  Occasionally, I would have welcomed a little more ease and fluency in the singing but for the most part Obadiah’s recitatives and arias were dispatched well. 

Elaine McDaid brought a bright soprano voice to her recitatives and arias and she was excellent in the upper vocal register.  At various points in the piece she brought considerable dramatic power to the proceedings.  Dawn Burns produced a nice clean sound and her intonation was excellent.  I would have welcomed more vocal power in the opening duet and in her final aria but the singing for the most part was good.

The Ulster Orchestra provided a sterling accompaniment throughout.  The contrapuntal lines of the Overture were commendably clear and I enjoyed the way they allowed the music to build.  There were some lovely cello and woodwind solos which complemented the singers beautifully.  I particularly liked the vibrancy and optimism which they brought to the final chorus in Part I with its scurrying scales.

Overall, there was much to admire in this performance and it proved a fitting way to celebrate the Phil’s 145th anniversary.

Robert Beattie

For an interview with Stephen Doughty click here.

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