Before the overture, Elijah proclaims “As God the Lord of Israel liveth”. Over recent years there have been some phenomenal basses who’ve sung the part, Bryn Terfel and Willard White being two notable exponents of the role. Tonight in Belfast's Ulster Hall, the part fell to bass Kevin Neville. Whilst an able and confident singer with a pleasant tone, this part needs a strong character actor to sing with absolute authority which Neville unfortunately lacked and the opening did not make a dramatic impact. It was down to Stephen Doughty's conducting to rescue this unfortunate beginning. A beautifully phrased overture, perfectly executed by the Ulster Orchestra fully compensated for the initial loss of impact. The crispness of the articulation of the strings and the precision of the brass set the bar very high for the orchestral playing for rest the evening.

Stephen Doughty
© Ulster Orchestra

The Belfast Philharmonic Choir’s first entry in “Help, Lord! wilt Thou quite destroy us?” had a powerful sound, not easy for the sopranos pitching their first note, but was done with security. The choral sound was full-bodied, balanced and with complete unity, the only problem was the lack of words. In the chorus “Yet doth the Lord see it not”, diction was clearer and all the drama of the choral writing was made the most of by Doughty. The agility of the choir shone in “Blessed are the men who fear Him” as Doughty changed the choral sound to a much lighter lyrical sound, here the diction was crisp. Once finding their feet every chorus was meticulously executed.

Even though this is an oratorio it does need some characterisation from the soloists. They were aptly matched in terms of balance, and perhaps in another performance in which the choir and orchestra were less strong they would have had greater weight. But it was the choral sections which had real impact and there was a sense of excitement each time the choir stood.

Conor Breen was the strongest of the singers, his diction crystal clear from the outset, projecting well into the hall the entire evening bringing a level of drama to the character of Obadiah. He had some fine moments especially in “If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me” and “See, now he sleepeth” which both had a feeling of sincerity. Both Elaine McDaid and Dawn Burns gave commendable performances throughout, but they didn’t bring out the drama, appearing to treat their parts more like the those in Messiah in which no characterisation is required to make it successful. Neville's Elijah had all the notes but little of the conviction required. MThe part of The Youth was taken by a member of the Belfast Philharmonic Youth Choir, Rebekah Devlin. Singing from the balcony down to Elijah, it was the only moment where the singers really came alive. She had an angelic voice, with a beauty and purity of tone.

Doughty knows the strengths of his choir intimately, judiciously choosing choristers for minor roles who all executed their parts to the highest musical standards.

The Ulster Orchestra were absolutely faultless. The size of the orchestra was ideal, sufficient to support the choir, but not to overpower. Natural timpani were a pleasant replacement for modern ones, which blended into the palette with style. Sounding magnificent, the Mulholland organ was used judiciously to have real impact and could be clearly heard (and felt) but without overwhelming the sophistication of Mendelssohn’s orchestration.

Doughty’s vision for the work was unified, ensuring everything was stylishly articulated and phrased with a natural sensitivity to the text. He knew how to fill the choral episodes with drama and emotion, pacing the work with a deep understanding for the musical highs and lows. Throughout the entire evening there wasn’t one moment when the choir lost focus, their sound was consistently strong, their unwavering energy and endurance in this tour de force right to its final notes was impressive.