The glorious space of St John's Smith Square was packed on Saturday for the culmination of the Blackheath Halls Community Engagement programme, which has brought musicians from across South East London together alongside some of the worlds finest professionals in a performance of Mendelssohn's dramatic oratorio Elijah. Written for the Birmingham Music Festival in 1846 for massed forces of even greater magnitude than tonight, Elijah takes its inspiration from the oratorios of Bach and Handel, who were both great influences in Mendelssohn's life. His revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion brought this genre back into the public domain and his own offering is on a grand scale, with a full symphony orchestra, massed chorus and demanding solo and semi chorus roles. The Blackheath Halls Orchestra and Chorus were joined this evening by four professional soloists and five young professionals, current students at Trinity Laban. All were skilfully brought together under the experienced baton of Edward Gardner, who handled the variety of forces masterfully throughout.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Matthew Rose, as well as being a driving force behind the project, took on the role of Elijah and was suitably authoritative, with extremely clear text and subtle shaping of the recitative sections. Elijah takes it's narrative from various episodes in the life of the biblical prophet, recounted in the Old Testament. Following a dramatic overture, the opening chorus is a plea for help from God for relief from the terrible drought that has swept the earth. Blackheath Halls Chorus attacked the raw emotion of the music lustily, however the impact was sometimes diminished when the clarity of the text was lost, meaning the orchestra occasionally overpowered the vocal lines. However, towards the end of Part I, they portrayed the crowds of heathens crying out to Baal with great strength and chutzpah, while the dialogue between chorus and Rose was beautifully managed.

The solo roles in Elijah are many and varied and these were divided evenly between the professional quartet and the Trinity Laban students. The double quartet all “He shall give his angels” in the first half really displayed the incredible musicianship of the young singers and the balance was simply lovely – an oasis of calm in the midst of the drama and action.  The drama of Elijah was brought out by soprano Ailish Tynan, who was transfixing in her portrayal of the distraught mother of a dead child. Tenor Robert Murray also showed fantastic control, especially in the upper register, never losing the line and flow of the music.

The second part of Elijah is where the soloists really get a chance to shine. Tynan's “Hear Ye, Israel” made for a stunning opening, with beautiful colours and amazing control of the high quiet sections. Louise Winter came into her own in a dramatic recitative and captured the menace in the words “Do to him as he has done”. Once again, Rose was heartbreaking in the masterpiece “It is enough” and he was joined by the lead cello in a duet that occasionally lost momentum and real emotion in the obligato line, which was a huge shame. The oratorio finally comes to a happy conclusion and the chorus returned to thanking God for his mercy and generosity in a fugal romp of a final chorus. The energy was never lost and the orchestra reflected the joy and positivity of the singers, which was wonderful to behold. It can be said that tonight's performance lived up to the Times' review of the première – “a triumph”.