Wagner thought it tragic. He certainly had a fucking nerve.
Last night to hear the SSO’s performance of Elijah.
I went with some trepidation. “It’s long,” warned my concert acquaintance, Cx, when I bumped into him in the foyer. “It doesn’t finish until 10.40!”
At least I knew the work. When aged about 15 I was rehearsal pianist for a performance of it and must have played in the orchestra. I hadn’t remembered it as particularly long, but then when you are in something it rarely seems so. All the same I do remember concentration flagging somewhere into the second half when Elijah starts going on about things in the wilderness: “It is enough” he sings, in presumably a tribute to BWV 82, and just after that, we are told “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”
I’ve heard it since, but without doubt it is the early imprintation which has stuck.
Surprisingly perhaps, the SSO has only performed Elijah twice before. Probably it is seen as a work for choirs to put on rather than orchestras.
Notably, compared to the previous performances, which featured prominent local vocal soloists (including some stalwarts for their time), this time the SSO imported 3 soloists from the UK; I was particularly impressed with Andrew Foster-Williams as Elijah (it was with admiration that my neighbour (pretty sure on reflection he was Clive Paget) and I had to giggle at one particularly relished initial rolled “R”) and Thomas Walker as the tenor (in various characters). The fourth soloist, Deborah Humble, counts as an Australian “international” artist: I didn’t think she quite mastered the oratorio mode of singing – she needed to get her head out of the stand a bit more, especially in the boring bits (and she did have a few of more ordinarily composed parts.
The choir was bulked up to 400 by the supplementation of the Philharmonia by the Conservatorium High School choir. Maybe there are some kids at the school who get out of this choir, but it doesn’t look like it. Given that most Con kids are instrumentalists, you have to wonder how much they could really add to the adult choir and I expect they probably compromised its finesse of singing occasionally (matched vowels or not and some consonants). [One question: why do the [ethncally] east Asian boys at the con make up so many more of the tenors than the basses?] Maybe the loss of finesse was not such a problem, because generally conductor McCreesh was after recreating the big choral sound which such numbers (based on the original performance in Birmingham in 1846) bespeak. Actually, I thought he could have allowed for a few more piano choral moments than he did. Maybe there was a weak link amongst the choral soloists, and the boy soloist was a bit mature aged, but these did not detract from the general effect.
After interval I moved back a row and sat next to an elderly couple. He followed the performance in his venerable Novello pocket vocal score. There were quite a few empty seats: I don’t know if this was an escape from boredom or simply fear of a late finish. In fact, the second half went more quickly than I expected it to.
I really enjoyed it. You cannot fault Mendelssohn’s musical craftsmanship and there is much to admire including some truly brilliant numbers. But I also had a niggling feeling of limitation. It is hard to work out what it is. Is it because the music, even in its inception, is deliberately middlebrow?
Nevertheless, a memorable performance.