Paul McCreesh envisages ‘the world’s largest chamber choir’ that would emulate a chamber choir’s ‘extremely nuanced, coloured and articulate singing’. As an aim, that surely can’t be faulted. But can it really be achieved with some 300 singers in Watford Town Hall? The problems arise in the linear, polyphonic choruses where, for all the efforts and goodwill clearly expended, textures do tend to be opaque and words inaudible. Even in a relatively simple, four-part chorus like ‘He that shall endure’, more emphasis on the ‘sh’ of ‘shall’ would have helped; and in the eight-part choruses the sound is at times close to being overloaded. Altogether more successful are the more homophonic choruses, where the antiquated vision of Mendelssohn as a milk-and-water pietist is often stirringly exploded – and here the 32' stops and ‘tuba mirabilis’, electronically transferred from the organ in the Birmingham Town Hall, add impressive gravitas.
Of the soloists, Sarah Connolly sings with mellifluous tone and Simon Keenlyside is an Elijah of spirit and intelligence: he may not have the sheer weight of a Bryn Terfel, but he’s alive to every shift of meaning and his diction is, as ever, impeccable. The gut strings, unimpeded by vibrato, bring splendid urgency to the texture – the overture is a triumph of anticipatory tension – and overall we’re left in no doubt why the Birmingham audience of 1846 was so excited, and why the festival committee thanked Mendelssohn for a work displaying ‘the most consummate musical knowledge and the highest intellectual conceptions.’