Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Mendelssohn Elias (Elijah) Rheingau Festival

Thomas Ollemans sings the title part in Mendelssohn's Elias (Elijah) Op 70  at the Rheingau Musik- Festival in 2015, with the Akademie für Alte Musik conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, with the RIAS Kammerchor and soloists Marlis Petersen, .Lioba Braun and Maximillian Schmidt. 

I'm hoping to hear Elijah at the Three Choirs Festival this summer in Gloucester Cathedral with the Three Choirs Choir, which combines the formidable forces of the combined choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester which make the Three Choirs Festival a momentous experience. Mendelssohn's oratorios are very much a part of the English choral tradition. Elijah was written for and premiered in Birmingham in 1846. But I have a weakness for Elias, sung in German, having learned it from the wonderful 1993 recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and choir and soloists Theo Adam, Elly Ameling,  Annalies Burmeister and Peter Schreier.  In German, Elias just seems to sound craggier and more uncompromising than in English: important, I think, to interpretation, for Elijah was a hardbitten prophet of the Old Testament, having more in common with the Lutheran values of the Reformation than with the established Church of England, despite the superlative choral singing we so often get with English Elijahs (especially at the Three Choirs Festival)

With its period instruments and spare textures the Akademie für Alte Musik creates the spare gritty texture I love so much in Mendelssohn, a composer much tougher and more assertive than many give him credit for. It helps, too, that this performances employs only 34 chorus members, nothing near the 270 at the Birmingham premiere. Also, the abbey at Rheingau is small enough to concentrate sound: the cameras focus thoughtfully on its rough-hewn stone columns and walls.  Elijah connects to something much deeper and more personal in Mendelssohn's spirit. Ollemans is striking: from the very first, his Elias carries authority "So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels lebet, vor dem ich stehe" The Overture that follows feels like an extension of this message.  

A drought has descended on the land, the people are dying. Elijah appears in the desert, revives the widow's son and prays, successfully,  for rain. The people are happy, but as so often, success attracts jealousy. Ahab prefers Baal. On Mount Horeb, Elijah is joined by angels. In this performance, the singing in Part 2 is gently lyrical: this beauty contrasts well with the resolute firmness that has gone before.  Thus the kindness that permeates the final chorus, where the emphasis is on enlightenment, not triumphalism  "Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen wie die Morgenröte, und eure Besserung wird schnell wachsen, und die Herrlichkeit des Herrn wird euch zu sich nehmen". Quite close, I think, to Mendelssohn's core values. 

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