Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mendelssohn: Elijah @ Barbican Hall, London

13 February 2018

Hilary Davan Wetton

Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah seems to be a lot less fashionable these days. Gone are the times when many musical families had a senior member who always remembered ‘taking the tenor solo’ for the annual church performance of it. Perhaps such stolid late-Victorian-influenced early-20th-century performances led to its decline in popularity, and certainly there have been attempts, of late, to take it back to versions that are lighter on their feet, and more indicative of Mendelssohn’s classical influences.

Tuesday evening’s performance of the work by The City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Hilary Davan Wetton inclined more to the former tradition: the large choir and the stage packed full of players made some huge sounds, and there was some good work on the words, but some of the choruses were not as musically nuanced as others.

Wetton, however, demonstrated good control of the forces, and there were, some great moments. The solid choral sound in the opening Help, Lord was impressive, as was the final And then shall your light break forth, and the radiant He that shall endure. The piping Youth’s report of the oncoming storm offered, as usual, a delicate moment of contrast to the solidity of the work (and Freddie Jemison took his part well). The drama in Behold! God the Lord passed by! was well handled – alternating spit and fire with a delicate mezza voce for the quieter passages, but, alas, the beseeching of Baal’s priests in Baal, we cry to thee began with a hesitancy that sounded a little like a querulous request to see the manager, and the movement lacked the urgency needed to suggest scenes of priestly self-mutilation and riotous altar-leaping.

The semi-chorus work was by and large excellent – Cast thy burden and Lift thine eyes were both carried off with an enchanting luminosity; the soprano section of the initial chorus recitative, though, was not together. In general, there was a feeling that the choir was comfortable with the big choruses, particularly when they got going, but some of the entries (especially where the chorus was an interlocutor in the unfolding drama) were a touch flabby and under-prepared.

Of the soloists, the star was undoubtedly the South African baritone Njabulo Madlala, singing Elijah, whose voice has a wonderful consistency through its register – even for the floated top notes. It is authoritative yet warm, and it imparted a special tingle to Elijah’s more introspective arias, such as Lord God of Abraham, Turn unto her, It is enough and For the mountains shall depart – the latter two being accompanied with great sensitivity by their cello and oboe obbligato instruments.

The soprano Rachel Nicholls has a solid tone that is slightly spread, but with a sweet top; a good choice for the varied roles (from distracted mother to an angel) that she had to play. All of her numbers were beautifully performed, but marred a little by her being buried in the copy.

Diana Moore’s mezzo voice is full-bodied and resonant (it is sad that few singers admit to being ‘contralto’ any more), and her accounts of Jezebel were full of nuanced scorn, but her O Rest in the Lord was rich and warm and utterly lovely.

Perhaps the least solid of the soloists was the tenor, Daniel Norman, who has a lyric voice – right for the part – but which has a tendency to go into a sort of Helden-ish area when the volume hits a certain level, resulting in an inconsistency of tone. His final aria, Then shall the righteous, though, was sensitively delivered.

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Mendelssohn: Elijah @ Barbican Hall, London