Mendelssohn: Elijah

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Elijah
PERFORMER: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Cornelia Kallisch (contralto), Michael Schade (tenor), Wolfgang Schöne (bass); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
For the first performance of Elijah, on 26 August 1846, a choir of 271 (including sixty male altos!) and an orchestra of 125 were somehow crammed into Birmingham Town Hall. Helmuth Rilling’s Stuttgart forces don’t get anywhere near that scale: in fact through much of their performance (with the German text, which predated the English version) I was looking for a weightier choral sound, particularly as the small choir is placed well behind the orchestra in a resonant acoustic. Rilling’s predilection for neat, clipped phrasing leads to clear words and good ensemble, and generally keeps the performance moving along at uncontroversial speeds. But an air of pious prettiness is only half the story: a complete Elijah should also encompass anger, religious fervour, utter despair and boundless joy, and it is the general blandness of expression that lets Rilling down. Nevertheless, he has a fine quartet of soloists. Three are relative youngsters with fresh, exciting voices (the bright soprano Christine Schäfer is especially good), while Wolfgang Schöne sings the title role with total authority. His mocking of the priests of Baal is suitably scornful, and Cornelia Kallisch’s Jezebel sounds like she’s auditioning for the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. The extensive documentation is very poorly translated into English, which always strikes me as so unnecessary. Stephen Maddock