Mendelssohn: Elias, Op 70 (in German)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Elias, Op 70 (in German)
PERFORMER: Ruth Ziesak (soprano), Luise Müller (treble), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Christoph Genz (tenor), Ralf Lukas (bass); MDR Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572228-29

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This is in every way a ‘big’ Elijah. Climaxes are full-blooded from both orchestra and chorus, and in the narrative sections conductor Jun Märkl brings out the drama with telling use of contrasts in both texture and tempo. Most important of all, Ralf Lukas’s Elijah is the impatient, hot-tempered prophet imagined by Mendelssohn, initially angry at what God is putting him through, and accepting only gradually that wisdom comes through suffering. 

Lukas has a rich, dark voice, and only in the most lyrical moments does it perhaps lack the last touch of tenderness. The scena ‘So wahr der Herr’ is one of the more impressive passages, with splendid give and take between Elijah, Ahab and the chorus. Further on, Lukas makes the most of the only joke in oratorio, when Elijah gives Baal the excuse for non-compliance that ‘peradventure he sleepeth’, with a sly change of colour on ‘schläft’.

The other soloists are not quite in his league, with soprano Ruth Ziesak a little shrill on high notes and tenor Christoph Genz’s voice here sounding glassy toned and verging on hardness (if only Welsh tenor Richard Lewis were still with us to sing ‘If with all your heart’!). The chorus is excellent, combining clear diction with spirited rhythm.

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I’m not sure why the vocal trio ‘Hebe deine Augen’ is given to them rather than to the three solo singers Mendelssohn asks for, after whom the following chorus provides a meaningful expansion of sound. But all in all this is an impressive disc, a long way from the ‘milk and water’ that so irritated Bernard Shaw in the English oratorios this work inspired. Roger Nichols