Mendelssohn “Elijah”, Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices, Delfs, Barbican Hall

Posted on March 8th, 2012

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. Their appetite for the Old Testament blood and thunder of Mendelssohn’s Elijah knew no bounds – and they liked it big. Size mattered and that big-is-better, choir-of-thousands, communal approach to the piece – as exemplified by Paul McCreesh’ stonking performance at last year’s Proms – has prevailed. So at first glance the modest forces of the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices suggested that more than a little something had been given up for Lent – never mind that for the most part they punched above their weight.

And so that fugal Overture sounded more furtive, even tentative, than threatening and The People’s first cry for help was incisive more than it was startling. Yes, there was Simon Keenlyside, “on stage” in every phrase and gesture and not averse to turning upstage to remonstrate with the Priests of Baal. He only lost his authority when the musical line plunged to bass-baritone territory and found him wanting and anxious to haul it back up to where he shines. But shine he did and his 19th century attitude to the drama was well-met by all the soloists: Lucy Crowe’s plangent soprano ensured that Israel would hear and hear well in her big number at the top of Part 2; Catherine Wyn-Rogers was every inch the “wicked” Queen brandishing her venomous chest register as if it were the weapon most likely to smite Elijah; and Andrew Kennedy’s pellucid tenor really warmed to Mendelssohn’s most endearing tunes, not least Obadiah’s “If with all your hearts ye truly seek me” which always sounds to me like Arthur Sullivan in embryo.

But if conductor Andreas Delfs‘ approach belonged more in the Baroque than the 19th century at least we shed some of the Teutonic dead-weight the piece has acquired over the years enabling the smaller choir to radiate in the beauty and consolation of the “heavenly” passages where angels hover in trios and quartets. The meatier choruses – where “special effects” are, as it were “audio described” – enjoyed the uplift and rhythmic imperative of smaller numbers but lacked the sheer heft and theatricality of a big public racket. And when the fiery chariot did finally arrive to transport Elijah aloft, the lack of a grand open-stopped organ (not the wheezing electronic substitute the Barbican has to contend with) did prove something of an anti-climax. No wonder Delfs made the final choruses count – Mendelssohn is fast running out of steam by that point.

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