ELIJAH OVERCOMES ICE AND SNOW

ROBIN GREGORY witnesses a recent miracle

When Eastbourne Choral Society decided to perform Elijah at All Saints’ Church on Saturday 27th November, they presumably knew they were tackling the most difficult oratorio in the repertoire. Mendelssohn wrote it at great speed to fulfil a commission from Birmingham, and himself conducted the premiere in that very town. He used as his subject a complex tale from the Old Testament, so the performers must ensure that this story-line comes through his rich and powerful use of singers and orchestra. He demanded four (possibly five) really “top” soloists, and they don’t normally come cheap. Nowadays everyone knows Handel’s Messiah, but few of the general music-loving public know Elijah, and those in the audience who do know it probably have a cherished recording with famous orchestra, choir and soloists. [I recently played through my own favourite video: the Birmingham Orchestra and Chorus, just like the premiere, Ben Luxon a perfect Elijah, and Fruhbeck de Burgos an inspired conductor.] On the 27th, as I plodded on foot over the dangerously icy pavements to get to the church, I anticipated a disaster: a tired choir, an unsuitable orchestra, and a small audience. I WAS WRONG !

Conductor John Hancorn (himself a baritone ideally suited to Elijah) had found for the part a singer of comparable richness. Former Cambridge mathematician and Accountant Mark Stone gave a performance of dignity and power. His Elijah spoke with biblical authority. When he mocked the heathen for calling on a false god, his demand that they “Call him louder! He heareth not!” was spine-chilling, as he turned to face the choir and tuned his huge voice to maximum. His diction was always clear, rising easily above the excellent playing of the Kent Sinfonia. When he asked “ Lord, now take away my life”, his duet with the orchestra’s exquisite principal cellist was a long-to-be recalled highlight. And when he joined the Quartet at the end of the oratorio he moderated his tone for a perfect blend of sound.

American-born tenor Paul Austin Kelly gave fine accounts of his solos: “If, with all your hearts” and “Then shall the righteous”. Pippa Longworth’s “O rest in the Lord” was suitably angelic, if perhaps less authoritative than some of the contraltos who have sung this, the best-known, aria in Mendelssohn’s lengthy masterpiece. [As Philippa Dames-Longworth she was a high soprano, singing Poulenc’s Gloria in a concert which also featured John Hancorn as baritone soloist, so it was interesting to hear her in her new register.] Ruth Kerr showed her operatic experience to great effect throughout, though I should have liked a slower tempo and a more contemplative approach for the start of Part Two after the interval, which would also have allowed the impressive orchestra to caress the magical passage “Hear ye, Israel”. Sixth-Former Freya Bailey-Barker was a perfect choice for the part of a Youth, which is often sung by the principal soprano, or by a member of the choir. Her liquid young voice, absolutely in tune, promised much for the future, given appropriate teaching.

Fine soloists, however,  need a fine choir behind them,  and they got it !  The balance between various sections has now come right, and, apart from a couple of tentative entries, they responded superbly to the conductor’s demands.  A brief hiatus near the end (when the items sung proved to be somewhat different from those printed in the otherwise excellent programme-notes) was of no significance.  Of course,  not every word was audible,  but that is as much the fault of Mendelssohn, who excelled in his orchestral writing, perhaps forgetting that the tale has to be told.  Every listener needed to  have done a little homework (reading the helpful synopsis as printed, at least), and then they would have marvelled, as I did, that Eastbourne could produce such a fine account of this long, and towering, work of genius.   

 

 

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