MENDELSSOHN Elijah – Masur
This is a tremendous performance on almost every count. Never before on disc has the work been treated with such an accent on vivid drama, not even by Sawallisch (Philips): the Old Testament text and its setting sounds as if it had been created on the spot, all Victorian plush and sentiment disposed of. Nor has any previous recording anything like the immediacy, both choral and orchestral, as this one. Indeed, the recording of the choir is so forward and lifelike that it puts most other efforts in this sphere to shame. That would not be so remarkable were the choral singing itself not so fiery and disciplined. These performers sound like the true descendants of their predecessors on the Sawallisch version: wholly confident in tone, articulation and accent, responsive to all the roles they have to play, obedient to Mendelssohn's dynamic markings, and totally committed to the discipline imposed on them by Masur's incisive beat. The pace of his reading can be judged by the fact that it takes some 110 minutes over the score as compared with the customary, say, 125. No doubt the live recording has something to do with the sense of electricity in the performance.
Chorus and conductor seem to have struck up an ideal rapport with the Israel Philharmonic, on home ground here in every sense. They play with verve allied to a technical skill capable of keeping up with Masur's exigent demands. In consequence, sections, (especially in Part 2) that can seem weak or uninspired in other hands, here have a dynamic, driving force that carries all before it. The contribution of all these three elements can be recommended without reservation. Masur also gains credit for choosing soloists rather than the choir as demanded by Mendelssohn for the trios, quartets and double quartets.
Most of the solo singing is worthy of what surrounds it. With a voice of the right weight and timbre for the part, Alistair Miles sings an honest, strongly limned Elijah, making most of his points well and unobtrusively and summoning up much of the anger and irony of Part 1, the anguish of Part 2. He, more than the other soloists, would sometimes like a little more time than Masur permits him to phrase with more meaning, especially in ''Es ist genug'' (even so he fines his tone away sympathetically at its moving close): by and large he stands up well to current competition, both in voice and delivery. Helen Donath is rightly urgent as the grieving widow, appealing in ''Hore, Israel'', though one or two high notes discolour, and mostly belies her years. There is an excellent boy-like soprano as the Youth. Jard van Nes is even better, making a fiery Queen and singing her solos gravely but without sentimentality. The blot on the escutcheon is the wiry tenor and tight vibrato of Donald George, whose voice obviously doesn't record well.
The main comparison here will be with the long-admired Sawallisch set. It must now yield its place, among German versions, to this new one because of the more modern recording and by virtue of a reading even more vital than that given Sawallisch—but not if you prize, as I certainly still do, the solo singing there of Ameling, Schreier and Adam. The recent Marriner (Philips), in English, hasn't anything like the presence of the Teldec, nor quite so remarkable a contribution from the chorus. Still, if you prefer the work in the vernacular you will not be disappointed. But the new set, in sum, is a wonderfully fresh, dramatic exposition of an old, put-upon favourite, that makes it sound new-minted. It deserves success.'