RSNO concerts begin, for me and around 100 others, with the pre-concert talk. I'm especially glad of these when new to a work, such as Mendelssohn’s 1846 Elijah. A talk by those who have prepared the music for us adds something to even the most extensive “presearch”. Sir Andrew Davis, in conversation with RSNO principal trombonist Dávur Juul Magnussen, came across as extremely witty and erudite. One topic of interest was the decision to sing in German a work whose Birmingham première was sung in English. The simple fact is that Mendelssohn set a German text, which was later translated by William Bartholomew. Davis cited a couple of moments where the English might be regarded as poetically inferior, inaccurate or even comical. Other interesting points raised included Mendelssohn’s placing in music history – Classical, or Romantic with Classical restraint? His championing of Bach, the influence of whom I heard throughout the performance, accounts for the contrapuntal rigour which contributes to his winning balance of head and heart.

Felix Mendelssohn, painting by James Warren Childe
Felix Mendelssohn, painting by James Warren Childe

Drawn from the Books of Kings, the life of the prophet Elijah has many New Testament parallels: a raising from the dead; a retreat to the wilderness; trouble with the authorities; railing against the idolatrous. Significant differences include a more obviously answered petition to Heaven in the form of summoned rain and the vanquishing of foes by fire, and a more visible ascension to Heaven.

The 159-strong RSNO Chorus, wonderfully directed by Timothy Dean, occupied many roles including angels, idolators and opining onlookers – often in the role of a ferocious crowd egging on those who would see our hero brought down. In fiercer moments I was reminded of the crowd scenes in Bach’s Passions. Much of the chorus work involved counterpoint. Entries here were confident and clear, and pitching very impressive. Attention to dynamics and diction was evident form the first choral number, especially in the phrase, “Will denn der Herr nicht mehr Gott sein in Zion?” (“Will then The Lord be no more God in Zion?”) Mendelssohn’s mastery in counterpoint, along with the RSNO Chorus’ skill in delivering it, was clear from the variety of moods expressed. I found it impressive that this singular, binding compositional skill could, with equal effect, express doubt, fear, anger, comfort, triumph and joy.

The 57-strong RSNO Junior Chorus, directed by Christopher Bell, provided angelic comfort from the back of the dress circle following Elijah’s time in the wilderness. Taking their bow at the end, these young singers looked absolutely delighted to be involved, surely providing some comfort to those present who worry about classical music’s future.

Such angelic reassurance was necessitated by Elijah’s optimism nadir. Convinced his “days are but vanity”, he petitions God to let enemies end his life. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, in the title role, was especially moving in the affecting aria “Est is genug” (“It is enough”), very ably assisted by RSNO Guest principal cellist Christian Elliot in an obbligato role – a device surely influenced by Bach. I felt this influence even more strongly in Müller-Brachmann’s next aria, “Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen” (“Yes, though the mountains shall depart”). This aria bears an obbligato of aching beauty, wonderfully played here by RSNO guest principal oboe Marin Tinev.

Yet more angelic assurance amidst agitation was offered – this time in solo format. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ mezzo-soprano voice was lovely in the aria, “Sei stille dem Hernn und warte auf ihn” (“O rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him”). Although not strictly employed in an obbligato role, Katherine Bryan’s flute made its presence felt here.

Soprano Lisa Milne, at that moment in the role of the widow who has also lost her son, conveyed very convincingly the distress which prompted Elijah to become the vessel through which resurrection passed. Less agitatedly, Milne also opened the second half, initially admonishing Israel for neglect of the commandments but later beautifully channeling the words, “Ich bin euer Tröster. Weiche nicht” (“I am He that comforteth. Be not afraid”).

Tenor Barry Banks, although not huge in stature, has a hugely authoritative voice. Delivering strife and solace by turns, in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab, he also had the enviable task of delivering the happy forecast for the future, once Elijah had doled out Old Testament-style retribution.

It was lovely to hear all four soloists in the excellently balanced vocal quartet, “Wohlan, kommt her zu ihm” (“O come everyone that thirsteth”), which precedes the choral finale. Associate principal clarinet Joseph Pacewicz added much to the lyricism of this number.

Audience numbers may not have rivalled the première’s 2,000, but those present were moved to sustained applause. Touchingly, Andrew Davis, having marshalled the hundreds involved with tireless enthusiasm, seemed keen that they should take the credit.

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