Felix Mendelssohn’s monumental oratorio Elijah, which premiered in 1846 at the Birmingham Festival, depicts events in the life of the biblical prophet, as drawn from the Old Testament’s books of Kings 1 and 2. And while modelled on the sublime oratorios of J.S. Bach and G. F. Handel that preceded it, Elijah’s lyricism and choral and orchestral heft clearly reflect the early Romanticism of Mendelssohn’s own distinctive body of work.

Under conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich and the 60-voice configuration of the Balthasar Neumann Choir performed this legendary oratorio at Zürich’s Tonhalle Maag. The choir, an ensemble which Hengelbrock himself founded, was joined by soloists of the very finest calibre. Together, they all injected a palpable energy into the work – almost superhuman in itself – but without any stuffiness or didactic sanctimony. 

From the choir there was tremendous heft in “Yet Doth the Lord” as there were subsequently in the theatrical recitatives from accomplished soloists. Also convincing was the sheer nimbleness, the ease with which the large configuration under Hengelbrock’s direction brought the orchestra through the swiftly-moving episodes. The oratorio features abrupt corners and shapely inner voices, subtle weaves and hefty choruses, such are also found in “Blessed are the Men who Fear Him”. The strings ably added the sounds of God-fearing menace and dire warnings, the choir gave us great breadth and were well able to elicit pathos and sheer wonder alike.

Drawn strictly from the Bible, the libretto (by Julius Schubring) is not a continuous narrative but rather a series of highly dramatic scenes which pinpoint particular trials and achievements. Part 1, for example, includes the resurrection of a dead youth and a scene with Jehovah consuming a sacrifice in a column of a fire. Part 2 includes Queen Jezebel’s prosecution of the prophet, his leaving for a desert refuge and his vision of God before his ascension into Heaven on a fiery chariot. There’s no lack of drama among those themes. Indeed, it is widely contended that after Mendelssohn, no English composer created an oratorio of parallel dramatic stature until Edward Elgar’s Apostles and Kingdom, both of which date from the first decade of the 20th century.

Michael Nagy © Monika Höfler
Michael Nagy
© Monika Höfler

That said, not every Elijah can be as masterful as this one was. Accomplished German bass-baritone Michael Nagy sang the lead role, his voice carrying handsomely over the huge choir and orchestra configuration. Nagy was authoritarian, but never totalitarian; he was a “first responder” of the highest order with a bronze and resonant sound that almost translated into a consolation. Sopranos Katharina Konradi, Marie-Sophie Pollak and Agnes Kovacs, each with their own particular timbre and colour, gave terrific dimension to the higher voice. Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s substantive alto made a viable blanket of comfort in her register, and Steve Davislim joined the soloists with a solid tenor. Singing in threes and fours, such as in “Blessed are the men who fear Him”, and “Cast thy burden upon the Lord,” the soloists’ collective work was simply superb.

Hengelbrock is a delight to watch as a conductor. He is light on his feet but restrains the dimension of his body’s reach outwards, conducting without a podium, stood on the orchestra’s stage floor. Given that he was at the helm of such a monumental work, one might have expected more drama from him, and it was refreshing that he was pointed enough in his cues to skirt superfluous theatrics. Instead, contained and noble, he often mouthed the words of the libretto as he gestured to members of the collective group. In light of the lush sound and action facing him, such restraint was even more commendable.

For its part, the orchestra responded with precision and mastery of the score that was nothing short of awe-inspiring. And whilst unmentioned in the programme notes, accolades must go to Peter Solomon, the Tonhalle Orchester’s long-year organist, who beautifully underscored the strings and woodwinds. Notabene too to concertmaster Klaidi Sahatci, for heading up a stellar performance, and finally, to first oboe Simon Fuchs, whose solo in Part 2 set a stage that brought the prophet he introduced that much closer to real. In short, the sheer resonance of the work and huge contingent of fine musicians made this concert an unforgettable tribute to Mendelssohn’s grandiose artistry.

*****