Of Mendelssohn’s works only the Scottish and Italian symphonies had a longer, more fraught gestation than Elijah. The composer wanted it to become a keystone of the English oratorio tradition almost as much as the cathedral cities and their festivals did. During the last few decades, however, Elijah has prospered much more in its home country, while the English have found themselves in fearful confusion over a Victorian heritage of which the oratorio is the musical embodiment.
Having sung Lotti (a Gramophone Award-winning album in 2010), Parsifal and much in between, the Balthasar Neumann Choir is equipped for the challenges of a style painstakingly crafted outside the idioms of Baroque, Classical or Romantic eras: drawing on them all, belonging to none. The cooperation of choir and orchestra is the performance’s most distinctive feature: try ‘The Lord went over’ with its mingled measure of words and notes. When they step out for trios and quartets, individual members of the choir sing with strikingly pure tone (matching the instruments rather more harmoniously than the main soloists), though none of them quite matches the astonishing treble of Gabriel Böer: may he make the most of it while it lasts.
Among the soloists, Genia Kühmeier most happily conforms to the sound of the ensembles. ‘Hear ye, Israel’ moves beyond the sweetness that belongs to her voice, into a mode of regretful reproach which is given further urgent intensity as the Widow, when she frames her plea to the Prophet as though her son’s illness were an offence in the sight of God. Lothar Odinius’s tenor is supple but slightly pinched, whereas Ann Hallenberg is another piece of luxury casting as the vengeful Queen.
In answer to the Widow, Michael Nagy brings more volume than leadership, with a vibrato under some pressure at the lower end of his range. His Elijah is at its best when waving threats of fire and brimstone though there is still an impotence to his threats compared with the Wotan-like Bryn Terfel for Paul Daniel (Decca, 9/97).
In other respects there are no noticeable disadvantages to making the recording live such as audience noise, instrumental slips or balances going awry. Indeed, one especially impressive feature is the discipline of the choir, and Hengelbrock’s shaping of its music, so that a chorus such as ‘Thanks be to God’ does not simply begin loud and get louder. It is – and this is meant as a compliment – the kind of performance one could imagine John Eliot Gardiner giving, did he not appear to share something of George Bernard Shaw’s contempt for Mendelssohn’s ‘despicable oratorio-mongering’. In common with other ‘period’ recordings conducted by Paul Daniel, Philippe Herreweghe and most recently Hans-Christoph Rademann, this Elijah has much in its favour without staking a claim as definitive.