Today is my hero Felix Mendelssohn's 211th birthday. Normally I'd translate a Lieder text, but much more fun to look forward to Friday's concert at the Barbican Hall, London, when Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Mendelssohn's Elijah, with soloists Elizabeth Watts, Claudia Huckle, Allan Clayton, and Johan Reuter, and the BBC Symphony Chorus. Book here - good seats still available.
Droughts, deserts, false gods, angels, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and a firestorm. Plenty of drama in the Bible. Perhaps what drew Felix Mendelssohn to Elijah was the personality of the prophet himself. Mendelssohn's St Paul was written to please his father, but Elijah springs from much deeper sources. Christians may have monopolized the oratorio, especially in this country, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn's spirit. Although he was a devout Lutheran, never did he deny nor denigrate his Jewish roots. Elijah's God isn't Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament. Though the heritage of Bach and Handel is clear, Mendelssohn's personal stamp is even stronger. Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith, depicting a man whose beliefs are made all the stronger by opposition. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit and draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music.The first performances were given in Birmingham in 1846 and London in 1847, firmly establishing Mendelssohn as part of British choral tradition, appealing to middle class choral societies and to dissenting and non-conformist movements rather than to High Church tastes. The Queen and her German consort, Prince Albert, gave the royal stamp of approval. Mendelssohn could not be challenged whatever the aristocracy and Established Church might have preferred. Perhaps we can even trace some of the roots of Catholic Emancipation from this period. Because this Elijah goes back to the essence of Mendelssohn's beliefs, it's strikingly "modern" in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, faith and integrity.
In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra connects to Elijah's spartan nonconformity, and thus has more authority than more elaborate instrumentation. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, total commitment and enthusiasm. When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave."Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!", the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground. There are so many exquisite passages, it's hard to pick out the most beautiful. "He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps" for example, where the words "slumbers not nor sleeps" repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. And the glorious apotheosis of the final "and then shall your light shine forth", ablaze with glory, for Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.
Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it's the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. These are the "people of Israel" after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it's utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good trio. "Lift up thine eyes to the mountains", this group sings "whence cometh help". Elijah's recitatives, "It is enough, O Lord" and "O Lord, I have laboured in vain" can show Elijah as human and vulnerable, rather "English" and understated. Johan Reuter, who will be singing the part, is Danish but has been singing in Britain for many years. Not that it really makes a difference - he's good.