Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

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(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall: