Thrilling Old Testament prophecy in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Elijah Op.70: Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor); Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7.11.2019. (JQ)

Matthew Brook (c) Gerard Collett

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has embarked on a two-season-long celebration of its centenary (it was actually constituted, as the City of Birmingham Orchestra, in autumn 1920). One major thread, certainly in the first of these two seasons, will be the inclusion of several major choral works. In part, this pays homage to Birmingham’s proud choral tradition, not least through the famous Triennial Music Festival, which ran from 1784 until 1912. The other reason is that this aspect of the programme planning gives an excuse – if excuse were needed – to involve in the centenary celebrations the CBSO’s wonderful affiliated choirs. Tonight, the youth choirs weren’t involved and in the spotlight was the CBSO Chorus, the senior of the choirs not only because it is the adult choir but also because, founded in 1973, it’s the longest established.

Among the works to be featured in this season’s programme will be Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Britten’s War Requiem (premiered by the CBSO back in 1962) and two works premiered in Birmingham Town Hall during the aforementioned Triennial Music Festival. One of these was Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, premiered in 1900, and the other was Elijah, premiered under the direction of the composer himself in 1846.

Birmingham put on quite a show for Mendelssohn that day in August 1846. A large chorus and orchestra were assembled, found from local musicians, and an additional, though smaller, orchestra came by train from London, accompanied by the composer and the soloists; they had all been rehearsing together in the capital. The premiere was a huge success. A few years ago, the conductor, Paul McCreesh conducted a splendid recording which, in terms of its forces, attempted to recreate the premiere – even to the extent of dubbing on the Birmingham Town Hall organ. That exciting recording is well worth hearing (review) and one of tonight’s soloists, Robert Murray took part in it.

You can always learn something from a good programme note and one fact I learned from Richard Bratby’s excellent notes came as something of a surprise. The oratorio opens unconventionally with Elijah’s dramatic curse, warning of the impending drought. I had always presumed that the decision thus to preface the Overture was Mendelssohn’s, but apparently the credit is due to William Bartholomew to whom Mendelssohn had turned to translate the German libretto into English. Matthew Brook’s imposing delivery of this short solo suggested that he would be a prophet to be reckoned with, and so it proved.

Though there wasn’t anything approaching a weak link in this performance, Brook’s assumption of the title role was outstanding. The work is so devised that the singer who appears as Elijah must be capable of being the dominant force but at the same time allow others to shine. Furthermore, the role is a multi-faceted one. Mendelssohn’s portrayal of the prophet shows Elijah not merely as a thundering character; there’s a subtle, sensitive side as well. Brook’s triumph lay in the fact that he was capable of giving us this rounded portrayal. I remember being impressed when I saw him singing the role at the 2009 Three Choirs Festival in Hereford (review). This performance was, if anything, more impressive still.

I admired the warm sincerity that he brought to the scene in Part I where he entreats for the life of the Widow’s son, but within moments Brook was full of fiery righteousness in his denunciation of King Ahab and then he dared the followers of Baal to summon up their false god. His rendition of ‘Lord God of Abraham’, sung with seamless line and ample reserves of tone, was a highlight of the evening, but within a few minutes Brook was able effortlessly to change the mood again for a thrilling account of ‘Is not his word like a fire?’ which was marvellously articulated at the blistering pace set by Kazuki Yamada. In Part II we heard an outstanding rendition of ‘It is enough’ in which the outer sections were eloquently sung in contrast to the biting drama of the central section. This aria was enriched by the warmly toned contribution of cellist Eduardo Vassallo. Another CBSO principal, oboist Emmanuel Rolland, made a similarly distinguished contribution to Elijah’s final aria, ‘For the mountains shall depart’. Brook made this into a dignified, lyrical envoi, setting the seal on his memorable performance.

The other three principal soloists have rather less to do, but all of them were excellent. Tenor Robert Murray sang with admirable clarity of tone and diction – as did his three colleagues – and his singing gave great pleasure. ‘If with all your hearts’ was expressively done, though I think Murray might have been able to make even more of the aria had Yamada paced the piece with the tiniest fraction more breadth. The great lyrical aria, ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth’ is one of the most inspired passages in the work and Murray’s elegant account of it did not disappoint.  I don’t think I’ve heard soprano Keri Fuge before though she’s no stranger to Mendelssohn with the CBSO: she sang on their recording with Edward Gardner of the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2015 (review). I liked what I heard tonight. In particular, she offered impassioned singing as The Widow in Part I, collaborating with Matthew Brook in a compelling account of this scene. After the interval she launched Part II with ‘Hear ye, Israel’; she sang the opening section with feeling and gleaming tone and when the tempo quickened for the second part of the aria her phrases soared.

Karen Cargill was the mezzo. Like Matthew Brook, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, she had to offer a range of characterisations and she used all her experience to accomplish that. ‘Woe, woe unto them who forsake Him’ was sung with sorrow mingled with dignity and in Part II ‘O rest in the Lord’ was delivered with warmth, the aria sounding calm and reassuring, as it should. In between, however, Miss Cargill’s most memorable contribution came as an imperious, vengeful Jezebel. Here, she really goaded Ahab’s people to seize and kill Elijah; no wonder that the subsequent chorus, ‘Woe to him!’ was spat out by the CBSO Chorus with such venom.

Concerning the soloists, I thought some other small things were telling. All of them carried scores but it was noticeable how infrequently the singers actually looked at the copy. That indicated significant experience in their respective roles. Also, though there were no unwanted histrionics on display, thank goodness, there were several times when a soloist would use a small gesture for added emphasis. I noted too a number of occasions when, having delivered a solo, the singer would continue to stand during the following chorus, thereby indicating that solo and chorus were a single entity. By such subtle devices, as well as by their singing, did the soloists demonstrate that they were ‘in character’. The CBSO had engaged an experienced and accomplished quartet this evening and it showed in all sorts of ways.

We heard a fifth soloist. In the scene before the rains arrive, the small but crucial role of The Youth was sung by Ella McNamee, a soprano member of the CBSO Chorus. Singing from the choir seats high above the platform she delivered her exposed lines with clarity and complete assurance. She thoroughly deserved her separate bow at the end of the evening.

If Matthew Brook demands to be named ‘man of the match’, he was given a run for his money by the CBSO Chorus. There was a larger choir on duty tonight compared to the recent performance of A Child of Our Time (review). My goodness, their opening entry ‘Help, Lord!’ at the end of the Overture packed a punch! Immediately, one knew that this choir was fully engaged with the music and would play its full part in the drama to follow. So it proved. The singers showed that they had real fire in their bellies in the big numbers, such as the episode where the chorus calls with ever-increasing desperation to the god Baal and also in the aforementioned ‘Woe to him!’  The chorus of relief and praise that closes Part I was full of energy; a musical flood was in full spate here. The description of Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in the fiery chariot was excitingly delivered. But there was much subtlety to admire as well. ‘Blessed are the men who fear him’ showed the lyrical side of the CBSO Chorus, as did ‘He, watching over Israel’, the ending of which was magically done. Here, as in many other places, I admired the attention to detail by both choir and orchestra, especially in the matter of dynamics. At the end of a long evening – the work took approximately 142 minutes to perform tonight – there was absolutely no sign of any diminution of energy among the choir as they gave a thunderous account of the closing chorus. Elijah is a work that has rightly retained its popularity among choirs for over 170 years and the skill, commitment and relish with which the CBSO Chorus tackled it tonight enabled us to hear what the work can sound like at its very best.

The CBSO were on equally fine form. I wonder how long it is since the orchestra last played the work – for once the programme which, understandably, focused on the work and on Mendelssohn’s links with Birmingham, did not include information about the orchestra’s performance history with the work to be performed. My suspicion, though, is that the CBSO may not have played Elijah for some time. However, they are fully conversant with Mendelssohnian style thanks to their recent series of recordings with Edward Gardner. Tonight, we enjoyed a stylish, dramatic and often sensitive rendition of the orchestral score. Time and again I was impressed by the dynamic range and by the power which was produced in the most theatrical passages. One moment stood out, though. In Part II, immediately before the chorus sings ‘Behold, God the Lord passed by!’ the soprano tells Elijah ‘Thy face must be veiled, for he draweth near’. So atmospheric was Keri Fuge’s singing at this point and so daringly hushed was the orchestral playing that you could have heard a pin drop in Symphony Hall.

I was impressed with Kazuki Yamada’s handling of the score. He evidenced a welcome determination to keep the music flowing in a purposeful fashion: no Victorian stuffiness was allowed here. Just once or twice I thought he could have relaxed the tempo just fractionally but these were rare occurrences. Overall, I thought his pacing of the music was very well judged; in particular, he and his soloists paced the recitative passages most intelligently. Yamada certainly conveyed the drama in Mendelssohn’s score but he also shaped the lyrical passages in a very satisfying way. The oratorio makes for a long evening – part of me wishes that Mendelssohn had cut straight from ‘Then shall the righteous’ to the final chorus – but there were no longueurs in Yamada’s performance.

The Birmingham premiere of Elijah was a huge success in 1846, the excited audience acclaiming both work and composer vociferously. A hundred and seventy-three years later Birmingham heard another memorable and exciting performance of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio.

John Quinn     

1 thought on “Thrilling Old Testament prophecy in Birmingham”

  1. From Cliff Haresign

    Dear John

    Thank you for your review of the recent CBSO ‘Elijah’. I was in the tenor section of the chorus for this concert, and it was one of the most thrilling musical experiences I have ever had. Some people dismiss ‘Elijah’ for various reasons, with some justification if the performance doesn’t bring out the drama Mendelssohn creates, but this performance proved the real quality of the work.

    We had a wonderful group of soloists (not always the case in choral concerts!) who really inspired the chorus. As you know, we sang the work in Monte Carlo a few days before – the first time it had been heard there – and at the after-party had the chance to discover what lovely people they all are.

    Your concert reviews are always objective and balanced, so I felt that your very detailed ‘Elijah’ review reflected my sense of the high standard of the performance, and I shall keep it with my programme to remind me what a great occasion it was.

    Thanks once again, Cliff Haresign.


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