Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Frieder Bernius, cond; Letizia Scherrer (sop); Renée Morloc (alt); Sarah Wegener (sop); Werner Güra (ten); Michael Volle (bs); Stuttgart Classical P & CCh
CARUS 83215 (2 Hybrid multichannel SACDs: 128:40
Text and Translation)
I have long sought a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio,
, that did not disappoint. Every one I’ve heard has left me feeling there was something wanting, either in the interpretation or the recording, or both. A star-studded cast including Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Gwyneth Jones, and Fischer-Dieskau on EMI is undermined by the turgid conducting of Raphael Frübeck de Burgos and flat-dimensional sound. Wolfgang Sawallisch does much better by the score, is provided with better sound by the Philips engineers, and has a mostly decent cast of singers; but I’ve never been able to abide Peter Schreier’s voice. Another ideal cast includes Bryn Terfel, John Mark Ainsley, and Renée Fleming on Decca, but it’s a period-instruments performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Richard Hickox attempted it for Chandos with a decent lineup of singers including Linda Finnie, Rosalind Plowright, and Willard White; but the sound is over-reverberant and creates a cavernous perspective. Philips went to bat for the work again with another fine cast that included Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Yvonne Kenny, in a performance led by Neville Marriner. Paradoxically, this may be the best and the worst of the
I’m familiar with; for it presents the oratorio in that high-tea English style that probably comes closest to capturing Mendelssohn’s Victorian valediction, while exposing those very aspects of the score that are most arch and artificial. Perhaps the best all-around recording with which I’m familiar is Telarc’s with Thomas Hampson, Barbara Bonney, Jerry Hadley, Florence Quivar, and Robert Shaw leading the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. It’s a sort of middle-of-the-road reading that avoids extremes, does the score no harm, and benefits Mendelssohn’s writing with exceptionally clear diction, clean recording, and ideal balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.
Evident from the above is that almost without exception the castings for all of these recordings could have been ideal if not for other militating factors. There are of course many recordings of the work—this being Mendelssohn’s most popular oratorio—but of those cited, one can’t help wondering why none of them fully satisfy. The fault may indeed be Mendelssohn’s. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a performance of the work with a community orchestra and chorus, and a decent ensemble of amateur vocal soloists. What became obvious during rehearsals was that between the many inspired arias and choruses lay many arid patches. Call me a Philistine if you like, but we ended up making some judicious cuts in the score; and even at that, there was restlessness in the audience during the performance as the malady lingered on.
was one of Mendelssohn’s last works, completed in 1846, a year before his death. But he began work on it as early as 1837 to an original text in German by Julius Schubring drawn from the Old Testament. The work remained unfinished until 1845, when Mendelssohn received a commission for a large oratorio to be performed at the 1846 Birmingham Festival. It was for that performance that the work was completed and the libretto translated into English. Current recordings are about equally divided between English and German performances, the new Bernius release falling into the latter category.
If you were an ancient Israelite living during the reign of King Ahab, c. 869 to 850 B.C., the worst transgression against Old Testament (Mosaic) law you could possibly commit, worse even than coveting your neighbor’s camel, was the cardinal sin of idolatry. The prohibition against worshipping stones, statues, and alien gods goes back to the very first of the Ten Commandments; and for centuries thereafter, during the dynasties of the Israelite kings and the biblical Prophets, throughout the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman eras, there have been ongoing battles for the minds, hearts, and souls of the Jewish people. In these great clashes of religion and culture, Jehovah, God of the Israelites, had to prevail, even if it meant letting the blood of His own people to instill fear and guilt and bring them back into the fold. Like many another biblical account of retribution against those who have gone astray, the story of Elijah—one of the earliest in the line of Hebrew prophets—has its villain. In this case, it’s King Ahab who married Jezebel and succumbed to the temptations of Baal worship. As Ahab’s queen, she turned the king away from Jehovah to the pagan god of fertility, Baal, and to the carnal abominations of ritual orgies and the horrific practice of immolating infants as sacrificial offerings. In a nutshell, the tale is told of a terrible drought afflicting the people. The Baal worshippers resort to their debauchery and other unnatural rites in a vain attempt to call forth rain. Following an afternoon of the naked gyrating and cutting themselves, Elijah has had enough. He challenges the priests of Baal to a contest against Jehovah. The God of Israel triumphs, the rain comes, the followers of Baal, along with their many Israelite apostates, are destroyed, and Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot. Highlights of Mendelssohn’s score include a number of memorable solo arias: “If with all your hearts,” “O rest in the Lord,” “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” Also several magnificent choruses: “Baal, answer us,” “He that shall endure to the end,” “Thanks be to God!” and perhaps the single most beautiful set piece in the whole oratorio, “He watching over Israel.”
The new Bernius recording can be immediately dismissed by anyone with an uncompromising bent towards hearing
sung in English. For all others, this is a performance worthy of your attention. The vocal soloists may not be quite of the caliber as those in the above-named recordings, but as was already stated, not even the best soloists can make a convincing case for this oratorio without a conductor and recording engineers who perceive its weaknesses and compensate for them. In this, Bernius and the Carus recording largely succeed where others have failed.
Bernius sets a pace similar to that of Masur, which is to say on the brisk side; but unlike Masur he doesn’t sound rushed and the orchestra doesn’t sound harried. The chorus is brightly lit and to the fore, but not so forward as to overwhelm the soloists and orchestra, and with sufficient ambient air around them so as to provide ample dimensional perspective. The soloists, likewise, are captured with pinpoint clarity, but their voices seem to emerge from within the same plane as that of the chorus, instead of occupying a space separate and disconnected from the rest of the ensemble. The Classical Stuttgart Philharmonic is a modern-instruments band that draws players from a number of leading German orchestras.
Editorial integrity compels me to state that I was not able to audition this SACD release in its full surround-sound version. This is a strongly recommended addition to the Mendelssohn
discography. It may be about the most nearly perfect performance of an imperfect and uneven work we are likely to get anytime soon again.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Elijah, Op. 70 by Felix Mendelssohn
Letizia Scherrer (Soprano),
Michael Volle (Bass),
Renée Morloc (Alto),
Werner Güra (Tenor)
Stuttgart Chamber Choir,
Stuttgart Classical Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1846-1847; Germany
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