Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, first performed at the Birmingham Town Hall in 1847, was enormously popular in Victorian England. In this sense, the Royal Albert Hall, the grandest of Victorian buildings, is spiritually an ideal venue for this great choral masterpiece. Of course, acoustically it is another matter, but on Sunday, Paul McCreesh and the hugely augmented Gabrieli Consort and Singers, together with a classy lineup of soloists and no less than four youth choirs, led a triumphant performance and proved that with the appropriate instruments and forces, this oratorio works superbly in this hall.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The performance was remarkable in many respects. The orchestra played on period instruments, with all the instruments Mendelssohn would have used at the premiere including Serpents, Ophicleides (forerunner of the tuba) and even an 15-feet Contrabass Ophicleide which was specially brought over from New York. The string section was massively augmented, with 24 first violins and 24 second violins all playing on gut strings (although the ensemble was reduced for the arias and recitatives). The woodwinds were also doubled, and placing the trumpets and timpani on both sides of the stage was particularly effective. The boldest decision was to involve the Royal Albert Hall organ, as there were pitch issues that had to be overcome, but it worked really well and added grandeur to the performance.

Elijah needs a dynamic singer in the title role, and we had one in the baritone Simon Keenlyside in great form. He sang the role of the prophet with total conviction, and displayed his strengths as an operatic singer especially in the recitatives in Part I, but at the same time brought his sensitivity as a lieder singer, for example in the memorable solo “It is enough” in Part II (the aria is a reference to “Es ist vollbracht” in Bach’s St John Passion).
The other soloists, taking various smaller roles, were also excellent. The mezzo Sarah Connolly was equally eloquent in her arias as in her dramatic portrayal as the Queen of the Baals. The soprano part in Elijah was originally intended for the legendary singer Jenny Lind (although she did not sing at the premiere) and elegant-voiced Rosemary Joshua was a perfect choice, singing her showcase aria “Hear ye, Israel” in Part II with finesse. Tenor Robert Murray was a sympathetic Obadiah, and projected his voice well. I was also very moved by the young treble Jonty Ward who sang his part at the end of Part I with amazing composure.

Last but not least, the consistently high standard of the chorus was really impressive, especially considering that around half of them were members of the four UK youth choirs taking part in the Gabrieli Young Singer’s Scheme to develop singing opportunities for young singers. They sat amidst their adult counterparts and their youthful, pure voices blended with the more expressive adult voices resulting in refreshingly dynamic singing, with wonderful attention to nuances and colour, all masterfully controlled by Paul McCreesh. His tempi were perfectly judged, and he controlled the massive forces with strong authority, never losing sight of the dramatic momentum.

What I found most attractive about this performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on period instruments was the fact that McCreesh and his Gabrieli musicians approached this work after decades of performing baroque and classical repetoire, and with their expertise they were able to highlight how much this work owed to the idioms of Bach and Handel. It was obvious that Mendelssohn modeled his choral numbers on Handel’s oratorios (especially Israel in Egypt), for example the vivid word painting in the final sequence of Part II. Bach’s influence is seen more in the arias, although occasionally the choruses are used meditatively as in Bach’s chorales in the Passions. By understanding such historical references, I was able to fully appreciate Mendelssohn’s genius in building on this legacy and creating a new work for his time.

All in all, it was a totally convincing performance, and the audience seemed to enjoy it as much as the first audience in Birmingham.