The situation of Mendelssohn

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.

5 Responses to “The situation of Mendelssohn”

  1. Ken Nielsen Says:

    Nice review. Especially saying that you enjoyed it. So few critics willI say that ( or the converse).
    I was surprised at the Con HS choir. Some heavy persuasion?

    • marcellous Says:

      Ken, it’s good for them to be in the choir – my guess is also compulsory. Nothing wrong with that for them but not so sure about for us. My further thought is that it was fine for the live experience, but that massed choirs are not so effective once recorded: it wasn’t just the Con choir who were less discriminately recruited than usual – I think the Philharmonia also drew its own net wider. So you got volume if you were there (and an impressive mass array) which was possibly loyal to the professed recreation of the original event (I have simply no idea as to standards of massed choral singing in Birmingham in 1846) but on the broadcast on Saturday I found the choral sound less satisfactory and also, I am sorry to say, the music itself rather more mawkish. – though I only heard the last 40 minutes or so driving home from the Australia Ensemble.

  2. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    SSO performance histories typically only mention the first and most recent performances, so shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning only two performances unless explicitly stated. In fact, on this occasion the records were incomplete and, as might have been expected given the general reception history of this work, there was an ABC/SSO performance as early as June 1934, conducted by Hamilton Harty.

    The review in the SMH doesn’t identify the orchestra, despite saying that it was uncharacteristically good in a work where the choral preparation is often given more attention, but a broadcast announcement from earlier in the week suggests that it was the “ABC Symphony Orchestra (Sydney)” as the SSO used to be known. The choir appears to have been the Sydney Musical Association Choir.

    From the Brisbane Courier Mail, earlier in that year, is an indication of Elijah’s popularity, with multiple presentations taking place. In addition to the Harty concert performance in Sydney, the article refers to plans by the Sydney Royal Philharmonic Society for a presentation of Elijah with “full effects of costuming and stagecraft” as had been recently done at the Royal Albert Hall.

  3. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    And yes, that rolled R was quite something!

  4. wanderer Says:

    I thought it (live) was unexpectedly (seems to be the mot du jour with this) good, really good, especially for the overall ‘sound’ with the orchestra beautifully balanced, and interestingly arranged (stereo effects) and the big choir terrific. Unlike the choking effect you can get with too much noise pumped into the hall (thinking the last Mahler 8) this worked really really well for me. He achieved his aim, admirably.

    Deborah Humble’s very warm pulsing voice was on the a-bit-too-sexy side for the part(s) and she just didn’t find the right tone. That said, the solo singing was world class. Everything and noticeably the strings, was, appropriately, vibrato-less.

    For me, the issue is the lack of a constructive musical arc which was a big factor in preventing the whole ever being greater than the sum of its parts.

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