Elijah, Barbican Hall, London

preference for the German version is neither here nor there, really, given the
commission for the Birmingham Festival, and certainly not when it is performed
in a series devoted to English-language oratorios. However, it is interesting
to note the difference in sound; indeed, it is almost impossible not to notice
it. Bach seems more distant, at least for much of the time, though it is not
necessarily the case that Handel seems closer. For better or worse, we seem
closer to the world of Victorian piety. (Consider, in a celebrated example, how
different ‘O for the wings of a dove’ and ‘O kˆnnt’ ich
fliegen wie Tauben dahin’ sound.)

One aspect, however, of the present performance could not have been more
different from the world of the Victorian choral society, namely the size of
the forces involved. This was a chamber Elijah, both in terms of choir
and orchestra. The Britten Sinfonia’s instrumental forces included strings scaled at 8:6:4:4:2, wind instruments and timpani, whilst Britten Sinfonia Voices
numbered thirty-four in all, quite a contrast with the
previous time I had heard the work
, from a fully symphonic London
Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Kurt
Masur (in German). The soloists were fewer in number too, limited to just the
five, including a treble. The Barbican is a smaller venue than the Royal
Festival Hall, though it is certainly not a chamber venue, and there were times
when I missed the heft that could be imparted by larger forces — not
because they are in some dubious sense ‘authentic’, but more on
account of the near-Wagnerian dramatic scale they can assist to convey.
One’s ears adjust, though, at least to an extent, and clarity provided
some degree of compensation.

The Britten Sinfonia is generally acknowledged to be one of this
country’s most enterprising ensembles, its programmes regularly proving
more interesting, more imaginative, than many longer established groups. Based
in Cambridge — during my time there, I attended a good number of its
lunchtime and evening performances — it has recently been appointed an
Associate Ensemble at the Barbican. Though that appointment will begin in
autumn 2012, coinciding with the Sinfonia’s twentieth anniversary, this
concert offered Barbican audiences a taste of what will be on offer: obviously
not so much in programming terms — Elijah is Elijah
— as in musicianship. My only real doubt concerning a fine orchestral
performance was a certain stinginess concerning string vibrato during the
Overture. Otherwise, all sections of the chamber orchestra emerged with great
credit, from the opening sepulchral, stentorian woodwind, to the blaze of the
final ‘Amen’. There was some very fine solo work too, for instance
from obbligato cello (Caroline Dearnley) in Elijah’s recitative,
‘It is enough,’ and oboe (Alun Darbyshire) in his arioso,
‘For the mountains shall depart’.

Likewise Britten Sinfonia Voices, recently formed under the leadership of
Eamonn Douglas, acquitted themselves extremely well. There were indeed times
when I had to remind myself that they were relatively few in number. Diction
and clarity were excellent; there was never the slightest hint of
(pseudo-)Victorian staidness. Only once did I find the choral singing a little
tame, in the chorus ‘Baal, we cry to thee,’ but the lack of
wildness — and this is Mendelssohn, after all — seemed more a
matter of direction by Andreas Delfs than of the singing as such. At any rate,
the call of the priests of Baal to their god to ‘hear and answer …
Mark how the scorner derideth us!’ soon registered less
‘tastefully’ and with far greater dramatic force.

Delfs I was less sure about. For the most part, his was a capable
performance. Only occasionally, most notably during the Overture, did he drive
the music too hard. On the other hand, and despite a truly thrilling chorus to
conclude the first part, this was not a reading to grip one dramatically as
Masur’s had done. The comparison may be odious, but, especially when we
are dealing with a work and indeed genre that remain unfashionable, an extra
ounce of musico-dramatic conviction can work wonders. It is probably fair to
say that Mendelssohn’s inspiration is uneven here, not least in some of
the numbers towards the end of the second part, but fiery advocacy can help
persuade one otherwise. Some of these numbers dragged, alas, lending an
impression of chamber-scale neo-Victoriana, petering-out Stanford rather than
invigorating Handel.

There was much, nevertheless, to relish in the solo singing. Simon
Keenlyside made an excellent Elijah, not a bluff prophet, but a thoughtful,
sometimes even conflicted soul, sensitive to an unusual degree, whether in
terms of characterisation or verbal acuity. The pathos to his delivery of
‘It is enough…’ reminded one, despite the language, of Bach:
recitative it might be, but Keenlyside — and, I think, Mendelssohn too
— brought the music, not for the first time, closer to arioso.
Mendelssohn at his most Handelian, in the aria ‘Is not his world like a
fire?’ was conveyed with equal success, echoes of the Messiah
readily discerned. Lucy Crowe offered a particular highlight with the aria that
opens the second part, ‘Hear ye, Israel’. Clear of tone and direct
of expression, this was model oratorio singing, as were the contributions from
Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Wyn-Rogers had considerable ground to cover, but moved
effortlessly between Angel and Queen. The latter — Jezebel, of course
— exuded menace and feminine wiles, whilst the Angel’s ‘O
rest in the Lord’ revelled, for better or worse, in Mendelssohn at his
loveliest. After an unfortunate start, treble William Carne made up lost ground
and offered a number of well-turned phrases. The only real disappointment was
tenor, Andrew Kennedy. Oddly, his single line as Ahab offered properly dramatic
impact, but much of the rest of his performance suffered from an awkward
combination of overt emoting and a tendency to croon. Obadiah was bad enough,
but the final, tenor aria, ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth,’
sounded as if it were excerpted from a West End musical, vibrato so wide as to
disconcert. Fortunately, there was some excellent choral and orchestral playing
still to come.

Mark Berry

image_description=The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel (1628) by Peter Paul Rubens
product_title=Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah, op.70
product_by=Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); Lucy Crowe (soprano); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); William Carne (treble); Britten Sinfonia Voices (chorus master: Eamonn Douglas); Britten Sinfonia/Andreas Delfs (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Wednesday 7 March 2012.
product_id=Above: The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel (1628) by Peter Paul Rubens