A performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio on a small scale, but with a big heart
Composed in 1845-46, Elijah, one of Felix Mendelssohn’s last major compositions, tells of the Old Testament prophet’s journey as he convinces the Israelites to trust in God, despairs as they still reject Him after He has sent rain, but finally wins them over when he realises that God shows his strength through gentleness. It is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most frequently performed, early Romantic oratorio, and while this performance by the English Arts Chorale and English Arts Orchestra saw the piece presented on a fairly small scale, it had an impact because in the relatively intimate Queen Elizabeth Hall it felt as exciting as it was undoubtedly clear.
The thirty-strong English Arts Orchestra, which was conducted by EAC founder Leslie Olive, was certainly on the small side for the work. The original performance in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846 employed 175 players, while most today still utilise around half that number. However, COVID-19 has already made us used to hearing far smaller forces for even key works, and the size actually proved to be a blessing. It meant that the sound produced possessed a cleanness and delicacy that derived from each line being delineated so well, and that balance across the ensemble as a whole could be micromanaged to perfection as everyone could focus on listening rather than simply on playing out.
The orchestra was also placed in a ‘fan’ formation, radiating out from the conductor so it only occupied three quarters of the stage, and this produced dividends. Although individual players were not necessarily any closer together than if they had been spread more evenly across the stage, it meant that the ensemble was in a more compact formation overall, which presumably helped it achieve such a fine balance of sound. Similarly, if it had been spread right across the stage this would have forced the four soloists to stand in front of the conductor, rather than just behind him. It also meant that they could occupy the remaining quarter of the stage and, while none revealed any problems with projecting at all, it may well have helped that they did not have any sound coming from directly behind them.
“…it had an impact because in the relatively intimate Queen Elizabeth Hall it felt as exciting as it was undoubtedly clear”
A small platform stood to Olive’s left and, while most soloists stood on the floor to sing, there were exceptions as Elijah sang some of his parts from this raised point. It really came into its own, however, when a section involved more than one singer so that, for example, an Angel could stand on the platform and hence look over Elijah on the ground below.
The four soloists were notably strong, with Gareth Brynmor John as Elijah standing as the first among equals as his baritone was possessed of an underlying smoothness, but also just enough grit and edge to make each and every one of his utterances feel heartfelt and sincere. Linda Richardson, who played all of the soprano roles, revealed a very full sound that also took on a glistening, ethereal quality when she played An Angel at the start of Part II. Diana Moore, who sang all of the mezzo-soprano parts, revealed a very secure and sumptuous sound, while Greg Tassell’s tenor was possessed of a pleasing lightness at the top of his register but conveyed equal strength in all parts of it.
The English Arts Chorale also proved highly accomplished. In the way in which it layers the parts, and frequently staggers entries to a notable degree, the score provides ample opportunities for each of the four (and sometimes eight) vocal lines to really be heard, and here each felt equally assured. The chorus also revealed a flair for both the work’s dramatic and sensitive moments, with the way in which it moved from the attack of ‘Yet doth the Lord see it not!’ to the tenderness of ‘For He, the Lord our God, He is a jealous God’ revealing its versatility to the full. It also offered eleven Angels from its number who shone exactly as they should as they sang ‘Lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help’ in Part II.
For details of all of the English Arts Chorale’s future events visit englisharts.org.