Mendelssohn: Elijah, 1846

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Mendelssohn: Elijah, 1846

 Gabrieli Consort & Players
 Gabrieli Young Singers' Scheme
 Jonty Ward
 Paul McCreesh
 Robert Murray
 Rosemary Joshua
 Sarah Connolly
 Simon Keenlyside
 Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir

At the time of its first performances in 1846, Elijah was hailed as one of the great oratorios alongside Handel’s Messiah. It tells the story of the prophet with imposing grandeur, inspirational orchestration and beautiful arias, recitatives and choruses. This mighty piece requires mighty orchestral and choir forces and Gabrieli singers are reinforced with talented young singers from the Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme and the Wroc?aw Philharmonic Choir. This recording sees over 440 musicians taking part, including 92 string players and over 300 singers.

This new recording was made following an acclaimed performance at the 2011 BBC Proms, and follows in the footsteps of the Gabrieli's other large-scale projects with Signum - such as the BBC Music Magazine award-winning Berlioz Grande messe des mortes (SIGCD280) and their recent New Venetian Coronation (SIGCD287). 

"…a microclimate of such unstable energy that it could easily have registered on the Beaufort Scale. Prototype movie. Tropical hurricane. Last night's Elijah was both." The Arts Desk - Concert review from their BBC Proms performance, shortly before this recording was made. 

 



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What people are saying

"The musical milieu is still Victorian but, rather like the cleaned-up Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, it gleams anew and radiates light. ... a definite first choice." The Telegraph

"In all this is staggeringly good. Approaching the work in this way fills a gap which I didn’t even realise was there, but now I’ve heard it I think it will be first choice for a while to come. Thoroughly recommended." Presto Classical

Paul McCreesh 
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir 
Gabrieli Young Singers' Scheme 
Gabrieli Consort & Players
 
Rosemary Joshua soprano
Sarah Connolly Mezzo-soprano
Robert Murray Tenor
Simon Keenlyside Bass
Jonty Ward Treble

Release date: 27th Aug 2012
Order code: SIGCD300
Barcode: 635212030028

1.CD1 - Elijah, Part OneFelix Mendelssohn
2.CD2 - Elijah, Part TwoFelix Mendelssohn

December 2012

Most Memorable Albums of the Year

... The Gabrieli Consort revisited San Marco with a new version of A Venetian Coronation and delivered a spine-chilling rendition of Mendelssohn's Elijah

The Independent on Sunday, Anna Picard

December 2012

Recording of the Month

Paul McCreesh’s Elijah comes hot on the heels of his sensational Berlioz Requiem. It’s the second fruit of his collaboration with Poland’s Wratislavia Cantans Festival, and it’s every bit as successful.

As with the Berlioz, McCreesh has gone in pursuit of authenticity, but his approach is a world away from the pared down sound-world that we tend to associate with “period” performers. When Mendelssohn premiered Elijah in Birmingham in 1846, he was operating in a musical world that was unafraid of embracing the large scale, so McCreesh has decided to re-create one of those larger than life Victorian musical extravaganzas, and deploys the enormous forces of around 400 musicians to bring Elijah to startling, exhilarating life.

The recording was made in the Watford studio (with the sound of the Birmingham Town Hall organ dubbed on, most effectively, afterwards) after the same group of forces gave the work at the Proms in 2011, and the results are a dazzling revelation. The power of the sound that the full orchestra and chorus produce when operating together is extraordinary. The first entry of the chorus in part one, coming as it does after a well paced and securely built-up overture, is hair-raising! The critic for The Times described the Proms performance as “a wall of sound of thunderous depth that almost knocked you over”, and you can hear why! The massed chorus cover themselves in glory at every turn. The big set-piece choruses like the conclusion to Part One, or Part Two’s Be Not Afraid, are fantastic. However, they are also used with biting intelligence to accentuate the drama, such as God’s appearance to Elijah in Part Two or, when Elijah announces the contest in Part One, at the line “and then we shall see whose God is the Lord”. This rises and swells with an emotional fervour that can bring a lump to the throat. When I first began to listen I found the English text a little difficult to make out, but before long I found it pretty easy to follow almost every word. McCreesh supplements his two principal choruses - the Gabrieli Consort and Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir - with a collection of youth choruses which spice up the texture and lend a special texture to the sound. This is movingly written about in the excellent booklet notes.

McCreesh turns his customary period scholarship to the forces of the orchestra too, using rare instruments such as ophicleides, slide trumpets, serpents and tower drums to enrich the orchestral texture. For all their vast size, the orchestra never feels unwieldy or cumbersome; instead it is remarkable just how flexible, even transparent at times the texture can sound. The strings, employing gut instruments without vibrato, are especially strong, evidenced nowhere more brilliantly than in their wilting, mournful accompaniment to Elijah’s Part Two aria, “It is enough”. The brass and percussion are also sensational in the big climaxes. McCreesh welds the whole ensemble together with the focus and sheer conviction that carries the whole project.

The soloists are also top drawer. Simon Keenlyside is a poetic, troubled Elijah, very unlike the grizzled hermit embodied by Bryn Terfel on Decca. He is powerfully moving during the crisis of Part Two, but even in the dramatic moments, such as the confrontation with the prophets of Baal, there is profound lyricism in his singing which I found entirely convincing. He sings “It is enough” with such wonderful poignancy. The accompaniment from a solo oboe is sensational. He is partnered by appropriately heavenly sounding female soloists. Rosemary Joshua is particularly thrilling. Her bright soprano is put to ethereal use in Part Two and blends wonderfully with Sarah Connolly in the duets and trios. Connolly herself uses her lovely mezzo to great effect, contrasting effectively with her colleagues. Her finest moment is in “Woe unto them” at the end of Part One, pouring down balm after the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. We don’t get to hear much of Robert Murray, but his contribution is clean and focused, especially in “If with all your hearts”.

I could go on, and I direct readers to John Quinn’s thorough review of the same set for more, but I finish where I started by saying that this is worth every bit as much praise as McCreesh’s Berlioz. Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come.

Musicweb International, Simon Thompson

Recordings of the Year 2012 - Musicbweb International

December 2012

Paul McCreesh recreates the vast forces that took part in the première of Elijah in Birmingham in 1846. With exciting and highly skilled singing and playing from his Anglo-Polish forces McCreesh leads a revelatory and often thrilling account of Mendelssohn’s choral masterpiece. Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, and Sarah Connolly are outstanding among the soloists.

 

Musicweb International, John Quinn

November 2012

Paul McCreesh is the artistic director of the London based Gabrieli Consort & Players that he founded in 1982. In addition McCreesh is the artistic director of the Wratislavia Cantans the International Festival of Oratorio and Cantata Music held annually in Wrocław, Poland. This Signum recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah continues the collaboration between Anglo/Polish performers that McCreesh has cultivated. On 28th August 2011 for a performance of Elijah at the BBC Proms McCreesh invited the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir over to England to augment his Gabrieli Consort & Players and other groups of choruses. The next day McCreesh took these same large forces numbering 5 vocal soloists, a chorus of 296 singers and 116 instrumental players into the Watford Colosseum spending the next four days making this recording. Another session was needed to complete the recording on the 26 February 2012 at Birmingham Town Hall.

It comes as no surprise that McCreesh has chosen to record Elijah a landmark of Mendelssohn’s oeuvre and probably the most famous oratorio of the nineteenth century. Widely acknowledged as a masterpiece Elijah is Mendelssohn’s second great oratorio and was completed just a year before his premature death in 1847. In 1845 the Birmingham Music Festival committee requested Mendelssohn to compose a new work for them. As he had done with his earlier oratorio St. Paul Mendelssohn requested the pastor Julius Schubring to prepare the texts in German. Unlike St. Paul that mainly employed New Testament texts, Mendelssohn fashioned Elijah on Old Testament texts largely from Kings I and II, depicting various events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah. The score was supplemented by texts from Psalms, Isaiah and other Old Testament writings. Mendelssohn designed Elijah in two parts each of which are based around three significant events in Elijah’s life. 

The oratorio Elijah is scored for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and organ and was completed in 1846. Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance of the score in 1846 to great acclaim before a packed audience at the Birmingham Music Festival held at the Birmingham Town Hall, England. Elijah has remained a staple of choral music repertory ever since. On this Signum recording the score that conductor Paul McCreesh is using is based on a performing edition by Prof. R. Larry Todd (musicologist and Mendelssohn Biographer) published by Carus and original 19th century sources. McCreesh is using Julius Schubring’s sung texts in an English version prepared by William Bartholomew with McCreesh himself making some revisions to the wording. It was a masterstroke for McCreesh to secure the services of baritone Simon Keenlyside (Elijah) and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (Angel) both major names on the international stage. The other two soloists tenor Robert Murray (Obadiah) and soprano Rosemary Joshua (Widow) are excellent singers too but are somewhat lesser known. McCreesh’s Gabrieli Players is a period instrument orchestra. We are told in the notes that the strings have gut stringing and also of note are the English slide trumpets, and McCreesh has also tracked down 3 serpents and a rare ophicleide. I don’t have any more information about how strict McCreesh is about authenticity such as reverting to period horsehair bows and not using chin/shoulder rests on the violins/violas. 

In the introduction (CD1, track 1) As God the Lord of Israel liveth Keenlyside sets the scene by communicating a sense of dark foreboding by announcing that a great drought will soon affect the people of Israel. In Elijah’s aria Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel (CD1, track 17) the fluid and expressive Keenlyside conveys a comforting quality beseeching the Lord for affirmation for his deeds to the people. Elijah’s aria Is not his word like a fire? (CD1, track 20) is a stern and unsettling warning. Here Keenlyside’s convincing tones with impressive diction adds impact to the harsh and meaningful text. Elijah’s great aria It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life (CD2, track 6) opens with highly impressive string playing creating a palpable sense of poignancy. In this moving plea to the Lord for death Keenlyside’s baritone easily copes with the low tessitura of the writing. Woe unto them who forsake him! (CD1, track 21) is a lyrical alto aria sung splendidly by Sarah Connolly. Her direct and emphatic mezzo-soprano tones convey a stark warning to those transgressors that destruction will fall upon them. With assured control Connolly as the Angel gives a moving performance of her radiant alto aria O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him (CD2, track 11). The beseeching duet between soprano and mezzo with chorus Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer! (CD1, track 4) is given a marvellous rendition of unerring reverence. I did feel here that the soprano and mezzo were a touch recessed in the sound picture. Obadiah’s aria If with all your hearts ye truly seek me (CD1, track 6) is sung by bright tenor Robert Murray with fitting piety. The tenor aria Then shall the righteous shine forth (CD2, track 20) is given a vivid and sensitive rendition by the secure Murray. Soprano Rosemary Joshua really excels as the Widow. The duet What have I to do with thee? (CD1, track 11) contains the moving ‘widow’s aria’ sung by Joshua imploring God for help as her son is dying. Joshua has a bell-like clarity to her voice that she projects so well. Part two of Elijah commences with Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh (CD2, track 1) a substantial and brilliant soprano aria. This is captivating and impressively reverential singing by the lyric soprano and another highlight of the release. Throughout I was struck by Joshua’s fluid timbre, impressive projection and flawless diction. Especially notable in the aria is her powerful delivery of the words I will strengthen thee!

Treble Jonty Ward only has a limited contribution but what he does is simply marvellous. I have come across treble Ward singing in a wonderful disc of sacred music from François Couperin on the Novum label. Chorister Ward’s voice is in tremendous order singing with a fresh and responsive quality. I was especially struck by the splendid singing from the Angels in For He shall give His Angels charge over thee (CD1, track 9) a wondrously tender and inspiring pronouncement that God has commanded the Angels to protect thee. Scored for double quartet the singers are taken from the chorus and are named as sopranos Susan Gilmour Bailey and Emily Rowley Jones; altos Lucy Ballard and Ruth Gibbins; tenors Samuel Boden and Richard Rowntree; basses Robert Davies and William Gaunt. The large chorus is in stunning form bright and resilient with singing of a striking presence. I especially enjoyed the chorus of the people voicing their anguish in Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us? (CD1, track 3). Worthy of note here is Mendelssohn’s darkly coloured orchestral writing performed with distinction by the Gabrieli Players. In Yet doth the Lord see it not (CD1, track 7) the troubled chorus of the people intone the curse motive that was heard initially in the first section of the work. At point 1:17 the chorale-like melody with the lines For he the Lord our God provides a calm and welcome glimpse of vivid blue through a dark and threatening sky. Sung with impressive unison the highly dramatic and bone-chilling chorus of the people announce Woe to him! He shall perish (CD 2, track 4). Extra weight is given to the texture by Mendelssohn’s splendid percussion writing. The chorus He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps (CD2, track 9) is given a stirring and highly satisfying performance by the impressively blended members of McCreesh’s choral forces. The forceful outburst in the final chorus And then shall your light shine forth as the light of morning breaketh (CD2, track 24) is sung to remarkable effect. 

Paul McCreesh directs confidently managed performances of elevated veneration from his choral forces of 296 singers. The assured orchestral support from the Gabrieli Players comes across as light, clear with a near translucent quality; quite remarkable given that there are orchestral 116 players. McCreesh and his huge choral and orchestral forces are beautifully recorded mainly from the Watford Colosseum in 2011 and a later session in 2012 at Birmingham Town Hall. I am delighted to report that the comprehensive notes in the booklet include full English texts.

I have collected a number of recordings of Elijah and from those accounts sung in English I strongly admire the set conducted by Paul Daniel using a period instrument orchestra and featuring Bryn Terfel as Elijah. This is a performance that manages to balance thrilling drama with sufficient reverence. Released in 1997 the cast of singers include Renée Fleming (soprano); Patricia Bardon (mezzo); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone); the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on ‘London’ Decca 0289 455 6882 9. Using a German text another recommendable recording of Elijah is from Helmuth Rilling conducting the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on Brilliant Classics 99953. I love the great energy and consummate control that Rilling presides over and his cast of soloists is impressive; Christine Schäfer (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (alto); Michael Schade (tenor) and Wolfgang Schöne (baritone). Recorded in 1994 at the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Rilling’s recording has a first-rate sound quality. The disc is also coupled with an equally impressive performance conducted by Helmuth Rilling of St.Paul with the Prager Kammerchor and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. There is much to admire in the stunning performed 2011 account from Doris Hagel conducting the Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg and the Capella Weilburgensis on period instruments. Using a German text Hagel’s cast of soloists is Christine Wolff (soprano); Britta Schwarz (alto); Markus Schäfer (tenor) and Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone). Beautifully recorded at the Schlosskirche, Weilburg an der Lahn, Germany the set is on Profil, Edition Günter Hänssler on DCD PH12034. Also on the Profil Hänssler label is Wolfgang Sawallisch’s splendid live 2001 Munich recording with a German text. Sawallisch’s superb Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir meet all the requirements needed for this marvellous oratorio. The fine cast of soloists is Michael Volle (bass); Andrea Rost (soprano); Marjana Lipovsek (alto); Herbert Lippert (tenor); Letizia Scherrer (soprano); Thomas Cooley (tenor) and Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano). Recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Hercules Hall, Munich the first class sound quality is notable containing much fine detail on Profil, Edition Günter Hänssler PH07019. I have also enjoyed Philippe Herreweghe’s recording of Elijah with La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées on period instruments.Using a German text this recording from Metz in 1993 has a satisfying cast of soloists Petteri Salomaa (bass); Soile Isokoski (soprano); Monika Groop (alto) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor) on Harmonia Mundi HMC901463.64.  

Congratulations are in order to all those involved in this splendidly sung and recorded release of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Signum. Paul McCreesh does sterling work in controlling his large choral and orchestral forces that number well over 400. I have no better recording of Elijah and this will certainly be a set that I will reach for again and again.

Musicweb International, Michael Cookson

October 2012

Paul McCreesh envisages 'the world's largest chamber choir' that would emulate a chamber choir's 'extremely nuanced, coloured and articulate singing'. As an aim, that surely can't be faulted. But can it really be achieved with some 300 singers in Watford Town Hall? The problems arise in the linear, polyphonic choruses where, for all the efforts and goodwill clearly expended, textures do tend to be opaque and words inaudible. Even in a relatively simple, four-part chorus like 'He that shall endure', more emphasis on the 'sh' of'shall' would have helped; and in the eight-part choruses the sound is at times close to being overloaded. Altogerher more successful are the more homophonic choruses, wherthe antiquated vision of Mendelssohn as a milk-and-water pietist is often stirringly exploded - and here the 32' stops and 'tuba mirabilis', electronically transferred from the organ in the Birmingham Town Hall, add impressive gravitas.

Of the soloists, Sarah Connolly sings with mellifluous tone and Simon Keenlyside is an Elijah of spirit and intelligence: he may not have the sheer weight of a Bryn Terfel, but he's alive to every shift of meaning and his diction is, as ever, impeccable. The gut strings, unimpeded by vibrato, bring splendid urgency to the texture - the overture is a triumph of anticipatory tension and overall we're left in no doubt why the Birmingham audience of 1846 was so excited, and why the festival committee thanked Mendelssohn for a work displaying 'the most consummate musical knowledge and the highest intellectual conceptions.'

 

Roger Nichols, BBC Music Magazine

November 2012

Paul McCreesh envisages 'the world's largest chamber choir' that would emulate a chamber choir's 'extremely nuanced, coloured and articulate singing'. As an aim, that surely can't be faulted. But can it really be achieved with some 300 singers in Watford Town Hall? The problems arise in the linear, polyphonic choruses where, for all the efforts and goodwill clearly expended, textures do tend to be opaque and words inaudible. Even in a relatively simple, four-part chorus like 'He that shall endure', more emphasis on the 'sh' of 'shall' would have helped; and in the eight-part choruses the sound is at times close to being overloaded. Altogether more successful are the more homophonic choruses, where the antiquated vision of Mendelssohn as a milk-and-water pietist is often stirringly exploded - and here the 32' stops and 'tuba mirabilis', electronically transferred from the organ in the Birmingham Town Hall, add impressive gravitas.

Of the soloists, Sarah Connolly sings with mellifluous tone and Simon Keenlyside is an Elijah of spirit and intelligence: he may not have the sheer weight of a Bryn Terfel, bur he's alive to every shift of meaning and his diction is, as ever, impeccable. The gut strings, unimpeded by vibrato, bring splendid urgency to the texture- the overture is a triumph of anticipatory tension - and overall we're left in no doubt why the Birmingham audience of 1846 was so excited, and why the festival committee thanked Mendelssohn for a work displaying 'the most consummate musical knowledge and the highest intellectual conceptions.'

Performance & Recording

BBC Music Magazine, Roger Nichols

October 2012

Mendelssohn. Effervescent, precocious, romantic music. You think of the sublime Octet, the astonishing incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Italian Symphony. But then there’s also Elijah – a behemoth of a work, a gargantuan Victorian oratorio that’s suffered a catastrophic slump in reputation through mediocre performances given by lightweight choral societies. This spectacular new recording was based on a well-received 2011 Proms performance. The orchestral forces include three serpents and a contrabass ophecleide, a species so rare that the only surviving playable instrument had to be flown in from the US. Elijah was commissioned for the 1846 Birmingham Festival, and the vast forces employed then provided the model for Paul McCreesh’s Anglo-Polish rehabilitation effort, “an attempt to rediscover the power of this extraordinary work and why it inspired a generation”.

My advice would be to clear an afternoon, preferably when the neighbours are out, and listen to this pair of CDs in one sitting. Miraculously, McCreesh succeeds in relating Elijah’s sound world to Mendelssohn’s more familiar, lighter-sounding works while never underplaying the performance’s staggering heft. The combined choirs produce a sonority which has to be heard to be believed. The doomy, dramatic numbers are simply terrifying – Woe to him, he shall perish a notable example. Throughout, Mendelssohn’s setting of an occasionally clumsy English libretto never falters, however Germanic the music feels. Simon Keenlyside revels in the title role, backed up by a supporting cast mixing well-known and emerging singers. McCreesh’s Berlioz disc was a highlight of 2011; this Elijah is even better. Flawless, in other words.

The Arts Desk, Graham Rickson

October 2012

It probably doesn't need me to say so, but despite a couple of minor misprints and the tricky-to-read orange print in the book this release is an absolutely tremendous achievement. It's easy to criticise Mendelssohn for his sugary side, but whatever doubts he expressed he really knew what he was doing when he stepped into the post-Handel oratorio tradition and produced music for which choral singers continue to be grateful. And it is the choir that is the heart of the piece and the performance. All ages, joyful, uninhibited yet unanimous, they carry all before them. Was this the best tenor section ever? Has unison singing ever been so thrilling? The starry soloists also give their best, with Simon Keenlyside a magisterial Elijah to whom future performers of the role will surely look for inspiration. The huge period instrument orchestra incorporates rasping brass and full-throated organ, but also a rich-toned and subtle string section and delicate (when required) woodwind. These vast forces are based on those used for the first performance but I bet that didn't sound as good as this. The best comes at the end where the soloists combine to form a remarkably homogenous quartet (so many Elijahs fail here) and then the chorus is let off the leash for a final flourish. They clearly knew that this moment would not come again and made the most of it. Go out, buy it, set an evening aside and prepare to be uplifted with the prophet. You'll feel that you're in his fiery chariot. 

Early Music Review, David Hansell

September 2012

In the 19th century, Mendelssohn's oratorio became a central work for British choral societies, and, unlike Handel's Messiah, Elijah continues to flourish as a large-scale work, often weighted down by sanctity. But Paul McCreesh here totally re-imagines it: the big choruses are transparent as well as massively impressive - with young Gabrieli voices and a Polish choir in the lead - and there is no danger of religiosity in the fresh-voiced solos of Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly and Simon Keenlyside: "O rest in the Lord" and "For the mountains shall depart" flow with genuine fervour. In all, a spectacularly successful reinvention of the British choral tradition.

The Observer, Nicholas Kenyon

September 2012

From its first performance in Birmingham Town Hall in August 1846 and for many decades after, Mendelssohn’s Elijah was considered the equal of Handel’s Messiah - certainly the most significant and spiritual work of music composed in England since time immemorial. Its grip on the public ear faded as world wars turned Sunday churchgoers into disillusioned sceptics. Over time, it has receded to an occasional performance.

The flaw in Elijah is that is lacks the innate optimism and the massive singalong appeal of Handel’s masterpiece. The atmosphere is dark, and sometimes heavy. Mendelssohn in his set pieces for four voices, chorus and orchestra can sound as if he is straining to hard to please God, man and good Queen Victora all at the same time. So sensitive was the composer to the sensibilities of his prudish audience that he completely excised the massacre of the priests of Baal, which was the apotheosis of the prophet Elijah’s revelation and redemption. This oratorio needs more blood and guts.

In a far-from-crowded field, Paul McCreesh’s recording, made at the Watford Colosseum and Birmingham Town Hall, does the crowd scenes extremely well. The soloists are a power-pack – Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray and Simon Keenlyside – the Gabrieli Consort play with vim and vigour. The sundry choirs deserve full credit: the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. The only drawback is the shelf-consuming thickness of the accompanying book, which is studded with pointless photos from the recording sessions (who needs to see a horn player with his eyes popping out?). Nicholas Parker’s sound production is exemplary.

 

La Scena Musicale, Norman Lebrecht

September 2012

This recording of Mendelssohn’s epic Old Testament oratorio was made in the wake of last year’s acclaimed performance at the BBC Proms. For an ensemble that has tackled such monumental edifices as Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (SIGCD280) as well as the 17th and 18th-century works that have formed the core of its repertoire, Elijah is a natural progression for the Gabrieli Consort & Players, albeit that the choral complement is greatly expanded by the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Chamber Choir.

The sound is tremendous in big choruses such as Yet doth the Lord see it not, Baal we cry to thee and Be not afraid, but, as in the recording of the Grande Messe des Morts, one of the striking aspects of the performance is the way that Paul McCreesh so naturally places the great set pieces within the context of a multifaceted expressive whole. In defining the lyrical strands that run through Elijah he is fortunate in having soloists of the calibre of Simon Keenlyside to sing Lord God of Abraham, tenor Robert Murray in If with all your hearts, Rosemary Joshua in Hear ye, Israel and Sarah Connolly in Oh rest in the Lord. Such familiar moments in Elijah sound newly minted here, McCreesh approaching them with polished, fluent phrasing and using the period instruments of his orchestra to underpin emphases and to add vibrant colour.

The musical milieu is still Victorian but, rather like the cleaned-up Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, it gleams anew and radiates light.

There is a fairly recent competitor in the catalogue, Jun Märkl’s performance in German with the MDR Radio Chorus and Orchestra, but McCreesh’s new one in English is now a definite first choice.

The Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris

September 2012

Paul McCreesh's noble Elijah - at once scholarly and inspired - gives me, at least, a new conception of the work. I grew up thinking of a Jekyll and Hyde Mendelssohn: the radiant composer of the Octet and The Hebrides, and the Victorian sentimentalist whose sanctimonious oratorio-mongering corrupted his true genius. Not all the efforts of McCreesh and his massed forces can persuade me Mendelssohn's heart was really in the fire and brimstone of the Baal music. Yet that is untypical of the beauty and grandeur of the whole. Apart from Simon Keenlyside's Elijah, the soloists are a bit disappointing, but the choral singing is a marvel. 

The Sunday Times, David Cairns

September 2012

Step into Victorian Birmingham with Paul McCreesh's "authentic" recording of Mendelssohn's epic Old Testament oratorio - and not just because his orchestra uses instruments of the period. He also shares the Victorians' penchant for massive forces (440 performers. with choral regiments drawn from Poland and Britain) and dollops of sentimentality. The thumping grandeur of the big choruses is magnificent. But against that must be placed McCreesh's tendency to insert wallowing rallentandos before every transition, and fuzzy choral diction.

The Saturday Times, Richard Morrison

August 2012

Ever since their fantastic Prom performance last summer, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Mendelssohn’s Elijah from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players. They went into the studio (well Watford Colosseum actually) the week after the Prom but I only heard the results in full for the first time last week.

At the time of its first performances in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846, Elijah was hailed as one of the great oratorios alongside Handel’s ‘Messiah’. It became by far the most popular oratorio of the 19th Century but seems to have fallen from grace a little since then. It tells the story of the prophet with imposing grandeur, inspirational orchestration and beautiful arias, recitatives and choruses.

Mendelssohn revised the work the year after the premiere for the 1847 London performance, and it is that version which is generally heard today. For this recording McCreesh also essentially uses that version, but uses the Birmingham premiere as the basis for many other decisions, replicating both the size of the orchestra (a very large string ensemble of 92 players, with doubled woodwind, trumpets, drums and ophicleides) and a chorus of over 300 made of the Gabrieli Singers and reinforced by the talented Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme and the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir.

The use of nineteenth century instruments changes the sound world entirely from what you might be used to hearing, with slide trumpets creating a rasping edge to the sound and tremendous power and depth provided by serpents and ophicleides (including a contrabass model known as the ‘monstre’ borrowed from America as that is the only similar instrument remaining in world in a playable condition!) and huge drums.

The sound of such a large string orchestra playing entirely on gut strings and with very little vibrato is both compelling and beautiful, yet still has the range of character to play both lightly and delicately and also with richness and intensity.

The four solo singers – Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray and Simon Keenlyside – are all in fine voice. Keenlyside delivers a committed account of the role of Elijah, and you do hear much of the anger and moral struggle which the character possesses. Maybe not as forceful as it could be, nor as heart-felt, but then this is an oratorio not an opera, and in the ensembles the four voices blended excellently.

The other big element in the success of this recording is the huge choir, who sing with an immediacy and consistency of phrasing which you wouldn’t think possible from such a large group. Equally implausible is the delicacy and tenderness which they can create, whilst it almost goes without saying that at the other extreme, the climaxes are truly stunning. McCreesh’s tempi are well judged and help build the real power and drama of this performance. This is big, grand choral singing of the Victorian scale, not always subtle but hugely effective.

In all this is staggeringly good. Approaching the work in this way fills a gap which I didn’t even realise was there, but now I’ve heard it I think it will be first choice for a while to come. Thoroughly recommended.

 

Presto Classical, Chris O'Reilly