Mendelssohn's Elijah: a guide to his choral masterpiece and its best recordings
The Old Testament prophet Elijah summons the attention of our reviewer Erik Levi, who names the finest recordings of Mendelssohn’s 1846 oratorio
After huge success in 1836 with the premiere of St Paul, Mendelssohn contemplated writing further large-scale choral works based on biblical themes.
When did Mendelssohn compose Elijah?
Mendelssohn was particularly drawn to the dramatic potential of depicting the extraordinary life of the prophet Elijah, yet plans to write it stalled for many years, only to be revived after he received a commission for a new work to be featured at the 1846 Birmingham Festival.
The eagerly awaited premiere of Elijah, given in the city’s Town Hall before an audience of 2,000, proved to be a triumph and the oratorio, conspicuously revised by its self-critical composer the following year, quickly established itself as a British choral society favourite.
With a general reaction against perceived Victorian notions of religiosity setting in during the 20th century, Elijah experienced a sharp decline in popularity. But in recent years it has found favour in Germany, where it is justifiably regarded as a worthy successor to the choral works of Bach and Handel that were crucial influences on the composer.
The best recordings of Mendelssohn's Elijah
Hans-Christoph Rademann (conductor)
Oliemans, Petersen et al; RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (2015)
It’s a matter of taste whether you prefer to experience Mendelssohn’s masterpiece in the original German or in its English translation, since both versions were deemed authentic by the composer.
This performance, recorded live in the Berlin Konzerthaus in July 2015, proves to be especially riveting, surpassing highly rated versions sung in German conducted by Frieder Bernius and Thomas Hengelbrock. The 40-strong RIAS Kammerchor is superb throughout, projecting the text not only with phenomenal clarity and sensitivity, but also employing a wide range of dynamics and colouring so as to create the illusion that a far greater body of singers is involved.
Equally, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is expert in bringing out the subtleties of Mendelssohn’s orchestration and deliver arguably the finest period instrument playing on disc. Apart from the wonderful Marlis Petersen, the soloists may not be household names, but they all cover themselves in glory with expressive and dramatically focused singing.
But the main plaudits must go to conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann who is particularly skilled in maintaining the dramatic momentum through the more static sections of the second part of the oratorio. There’s little doubt too that the sheer adrenaline of a live performance, aided by a vivid recording, makes this one of the most satisfying of all Elijahs.
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Simon Keenlyside, Rosemary Joshua et al; Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort & Players (2012)
Signum Winged Lion SIGCD300
McCreesh has opted to recreate the special frisson of the 1846 Birmingham Festival performance of Elijah by engaging similarly massed forces to those used by the composer.
But this is no mere exercise in historical correctness, for the conductor marshals the huge number of singers and players with masterly skill, taking infinite care to ensure that textures remain as light and clear as possible.
Admittedly, there are a few moments where the words are not always entirely clear, but at the big climaxes, for example in the opening chorus, the visceral power of the choral sound sends shivers down the spine.
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Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
Theo Adam, Elly Ameling et al; Leipzig Gewandhaus, Rundfunkchor Leipzig (1968)
Decca 438 3682
Despite a recording that shows its age, this studio performance is worth hearing for the superlative conducting of Wolfgang Sawallisch, one of the most devoted of all Mendelssohn interpreters, whose vast operatic experience reaps dividends in negotiating the score’s dramatic ebb and flow.
Although Sawallisch re-recorded the work for Hänssler Profil with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in 2001, this earlier version boasts finer soloists, not least Theo Adam, whose Elijah has Wagnerian gravitas and nobility. Elly Ameling and Peter Schreier are equally compelling.
Yet the real hero in this recording is the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra that gave the first German performance of the work. Listen with bated breath as they ratchet up the tension in their irresistibly exciting account of the Overture.
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming et al; OAE, Edinburgh Festival Chorus (1997)
Decca 455 6882
Nobody rivals the dramatic range of Bryn Terfel in his portrayal of the prophet, at one moment compassionate and contemplative, then suddenly seized with rage and defiance.
The other singers also excel, particularly John Mark Ainsley who delivers a stunningly beautiful ‘If with all your hearts’, while Renée Fleming brings warmth and distinction to the soprano part. Conductor Paul Daniel wipes away any lingering notions of Victorian fustiness, imbuing Mendelssohn’s score with vigour and lyricism with the help of energetic playing from the period-instrument OAE.
The Edinburgh Festival Chorus enters into the spirit with committed singing, though despite Decca’s clear recording, not all the words are clearly audible. Still, this recording makes for compelling listening.
Illustration: Steve Rawlings/Debut Art
Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.