Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Uncompromising Elijah Berlin

Mendelssohn's Elijah suffers from its popularity. Late 19th century Victorians saw it as an opportunity to go overboard. There were performances with literally several thousand voices blasting out the message "Our God is right, your's isn't!". Through association with Middle England on the warpath, self righteousness and moral certainty, Elijah (and Mendelssohn) has gained a bad reputation. Beware critics like George Bernard Shaw whose own blinkers blinded him to the reality of Mendelssohn's music.

Elijah in the Bible wasn't a cosy character. He stood up alone against the worshippers of Baal, who would have killed him if God hadn't done flashy miracles. The picture above shows Elijah confronting King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. To them he must have seemed a smelly old wild man from the desert come to destroy what to them was a pretty good way of life. So it's ironic that Middle England should have claimed him, as a kind of weapon.

For Mendelssohn himself, Elijah probably meant something quite different. He may have switched religions but he respected his Jewish origins. He knew all too well about faiths won through struggle. Significantly, for this magnum opus, he didn't do Jesus. Elijah served the God of Judaism, not C of E (episopalian). So it's good to hear the oratorio in German, in Germany, where Elijah isn't quite so entrenched as a pillar of Middle England values. Recently Seiji Osawa conducted Elijah with the Berliner Philhamoniker with Matthias Goerne as Elijah, Natalie Stutzmann, Anthony Dean Giffrey and Annette Dasch in the main other parts. Osawa uses a small orchestra and a choir that fits easily on the Philharmonie platform. The emphasis then is on the drama inherent in the music, not the experience as such. This brings us closer to Elijah himself, who has no delusions other than he's a channel for a higher power.

In Part One God does things like blitzing graven pagan images, so naturally the emphasis here is on power and drama. Magnificent singing and playing - this choir is very tight, as disciplined as the orchestra, so as music it's clear and focussed. The soloists don't have to battle against a wall of noise so their words can be heard clearly. One wonders how they must have stood out even more against early instruments : It's a credit to Osawa and this orchestra that they can do simplicity with gorgeous instruments. The quartets and terzetts are nicely don : Stutzmann and Giffrey singing more sympathetically than in a while.

Goerne stands out. Now he's turned 40, his voice is maturing, bringing out extra depth and richness. Most impressive, though, is the way that he sings as if the words mean something. This Elijah has a personality and feelings. Listen especially to the aria Es ist genug! So nimm nun, Herr. Meine Seele!. Elijah goes willingly to death, but without defiance, only gentleness. It's so beautifully nuanced and phrased: much more convincing than the noble heroes we sometimes hear.

Silence and humility in the presence of the Lord. Note how Mendelssohn builds a long pause in the Angel's lines before the lovely Verhülle dein Antlitz, denn es naht der Herr. That's also why Mendelssohn includes a boy soprano, the embodiment of purity. It's not big butch effects Mendelssohn's after but (to quote from the hymn) "the still small voice of peace".

Mendelssohn knows his Bible. God may be surrounded by earthquake, wind and fire, but he's the still, quiet voice of peace that arises out of the turbulence. So Elijah gets taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, but Elijah himself sings tenderly. The mountains shall be riven apart but as long as God is with him, Elijah is at peace. Then the choir and orchestra can surge triumphant, for they have "witnessed" a miracle. The finale is all the more glorious because of what's gone before. Aber einer wacht von Mitternacht, und er kommt vom Aufgang der Sonne.

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