BBC Proms reviews

Prom 19 review – a crisp and entirely Classical performance of Elijah from Scotland’s finest

29 July 2023

Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus under Maxim Emelyanychev bring historical context to Mendelssohn’s great oratorio.

Prom 19

SCO & chorus with Maxim Emelyanychev & Roderick Williams (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

George Bernard Shaw, a confirmed Wagnerite, once gave Mendelssohn the backhanded compliment of bestowing the quality of “…exquisite prettiness…” upon the latter’s music. Setting aside the snark, Shaw had a point. For decades, Mendelssohn tended to be lumped with other 19th century Germanics such as Brahms and Wagner, but this is nowadays a bit of an outdated view. Mendelssohn composed young and died young; he was 18 when Beethoven died in 1827, and had already produced a considerable body of work.

His musical world, then, was not one of heavy Romanticism, but was perfused by the elegance and structure of the Classical era; although he wasn’t averse to deploying chromaticism, his soupy moments tended to a light consommé rather than Brown Windsor. There was a time in the early 20th century when every choral society trotted out Elijah biennially, in grand late-Victorian style, giving rise to a perception that ponderous and intense performances were the standard; we know better now.

Maxim Emelyanychev, as well being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Conductor, also directs the period ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, and was thus the perfect conductor for the job of shaping a Proms performance of Elijah into its historical/musical context. The SCO was just the right size – about Beethoven symphony numbers – ‘period’ sound was intensified with the use of tap timpani (played with hard sticks), natural trumpets, crooked horns, smaller trombones, and an ophicleide rather than a tuba. All this perhaps took the timbral zone back a little far through time (valved horns and trumpets were, after all, available to Mendelssohn), but it made for a satisfyingly fine-grained sound, untroubled by grandiloquent bombast. Emelyanychev opted for tempi on the brisk side – although still allowing a little room for the occasional wallow.

The orchestra played with precision and a clear sense of style that included plenty of dynamic range and contrast, while keeping the whole within an early 19th century frame, such that even the ‘wall of sound’ moments (the priests of Baal, or ‘Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like fire’) were punchy and solid without being overblown. Particularly special moments included the faultless ‘Beethoven sound’ for the introduction of ‘Lord God of Abraham’, the busy horns in ‘Is not his word like a fire’, the immaculately controlled crescendo leading up to the arrival of the rain at the end of Part 1, the beautifully mannered account of the sarabande accompanying ‘It is enough’, and the contrasts in volume during ‘Behold! God the Lord passed by!’ – a soft thunder for the opening, a full, focused fortissimo for the earthquake and fire, and a precise and delicate pianissimo  for ‘but yet the Lord was not…’.

The SCO chorus also turned in a peerless account. Numbering around 80, like the orchestra’s, their sound was controlled and focused, with clear enunciation and an appropriate sense of drama. All of the parts were well balanced, such that the contrapuntal entries – from the get-go in ‘Help, Lord’ – were even and exact. Their dynamic range was also nicely controlled from the chunkiness of ‘Hear our cry, O Baal!’ through the hymnodic concentration of ‘Yet doth the Lord’ to the exquisitely lyrical and quiet ‘still small voice’. The semichorus was used sensitively, and the pianissimo of ‘Cast thy burden’ was exquisite.

“Maxim Emelyanychev… was thus the perfect conductor for the job of shaping a Proms performance of Elijah…”

Prom 19

Maxim Emelyanychev (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Carolyn Sampson and Rowan Pierce – both known for their accounts of 18th century works – brought a refreshingly clear and bell-like intensity to the two soprano parts; Sampson’s account of ‘Hear ye, Israel’ was packed with creamy expression, ending in a gorgeously floated ‘For I, thy God…’. Pierce took the part of The Youth from the organ gallery, and although it was a shame not to have the usual treble lisp as a timbral contrast, it was beautifully sung.

Andrew Staples’ tenor voice has a clean, shiny edge to it – English lyric with just a tiny touch of Germanic Helden – and for this performance it was matchless; his recitative brought touches of a Bach Evangelist to the role, and ‘If with all your hearts’ was full of silvery delight.

The star of the show, however, was the mezzo, Helen Charlston. The concentrated syrup of her voice made for an Angel full of tender compassion, and ‘Though they are by him redeemed’ was overflowing with sweet yearning; for her Jezebel, though, she found heft in her chest voice and a steely edge to the top of her range, giving us the consummate ‘evil queen’.

Which brings us to the difficult topic of Elijah himself. Roderick Williams is a national treasure, and generally acclaimed to be at the top of his game. It seemed only right, then, for such a major performance, to cast him in the title role. Certainly, he gave wonderful accounts: his ‘Lord God of Abraham’ was prayerful and subtly shaded for volume; ‘Is not his word like fire’ had command; his dynamic control of ‘It is enough’ was sans pareil; his envoi ‘For the mountains shall depart’ was lyrical and sensitive. In spite of all this, though, he just didn’t fit the part. Elijah really needs some weight in the lower vocal harmonics – not only for his order to slaughter the priests of Baal and his remonstrations with Jezebel, but to bring a sonorous authority to the character; what’s needed is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Sadly, although his voice is lovely, Williams doesn’t quite have this, and in a performance that was all about textural shading, this was noticeable.

• Prom 19 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

buy Scottish Chamber Orchestra MP3s or CDs
Spotify Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Spotify

More on Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Prom 19 review – a crisp and entirely Classical performance of Elijah from Scotland’s finest
Prom 55: Jephtha @ Royal Albert Hall, London