The Best Performance of Mendelssohn’s Elias (Elijah) in video format?
When one of the Conservatory students asked me that question awhile back I said, “Well that’s a tough one. There’s no ‘perfect’ performance in video format that I’ve heard. And as often as the oratorio (Elias/Elijah) used to be performed you would think there would be one stellar performance out there from a choral perspective. And that’s what I focus on — along with the Orchestra — is choral excellence. A superbly prepared Orchestra Chorus. I don’t do what the classical music armchair critics do — have they ever studied music or trained anywhere? — and worship celebrity vocal soloists (they’re often screamers) nor do I worship celebrity conductors. The Chorus and Orchestra are the “stars” in Elias and that’s my focus. Although I suppose some people would say that Elias is the “star” since that’s the name of the oratorio, regardless of how often the Chorus sings while Elias is sitting. (And there is no oratorio called The Chorus, even when they perform the majority of a symphonic choral work and are the real stars along with the Orchestra.)
In this performance from the Nederlands, this Chorus should be very pleased with their performance overall. It’s not “perfect” (and it is hard to achieve a perfect performance with this many people involved). There were times where the Chorus came out of perfect intonation and I heard wobbling and fluttering mostly in the soprano section. Yes, that problem again which might have been because of the overall age of most of the soprano section. Then they went back into perfect intonation and sounded beautiful, especially in one of my favourite choruses from the oratorio, “His Mercies on Thousands Fall” 15.28 in video. (That’s the English translation. And “Mercies” is pronounced Muh-cies when it’s sung; no tacky US “r” please). That chorus in the oratorio is gorgeous — sung with perfect intonation in all SATB sections — and listen to the soaring soprano section on their high notes. If one is not moved by this chorus (“His Mercies on Thousands Fall” ) and the way the Chorus sang it, something’s wrong with you! And I love their tenor section in this Chorus. I wanted to especially mention them. The tenor section is over on the far right of the Chorus behind the alto section. The bass section has a nice, rich dark tone. They are behind the soprano section over on the left side. “He Watching Over Israel” — which is probably considered the most famous chorus from this oratorio; “everybody does it” even if they can’t perform the oratorio — was equally beautifully sung. Only the finest Choruses can sing beautifully quietly. This Chorus from Amsterdam does just that at 45.15 in the video. I don’t think that could have been sung any better. It was sung with beautiful perfect intonation and they remained perfectly in tune with the superb Orchestra’s playing. No sagging of pitch from the Chorus as would have been the case with an inferior Chorus. The Chorus had a cappella passages followed by the Orchestra coming in briefly. It was gorgeous. Unfortunately, I suspect most people in the audience have no idea how difficult that is to do and they take it all for granted. The Chorus is most often “on edge” in passages like that. I speak from experience. I was on edge just listening to them. Because it’s very difficult to sing that quietly and beautifully and consistently on pitch. But they did it beautifully. Choral excellence. I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to the celebrity soloists parked on the front of the stage facing the back wall per that silly tradition. From what little I heard of the celebrity soloists — since I’m not a “soloist” person — I very much liked the tenor, Sebastian Kohlhepp. He’s excellent. He has a lovely lyric tenor voice and I don’t find his vibrato (what little he uses overall) offensive. Unlike other soloists-screamers, I wasn’t trying to guess what pitch he was singing because of an overuse of wobbling vibrato as is the case with many other soloists. Sebastian is sort of quiet really, which is refreshing. I found a performance where he was tenor soloist in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. He was excellent in that as well. He doesn’t resort to screaming or trying to scream or overpower all the other soloists, as most soprano soloists do. So I liked Sebastian and I liked the bass soloist for the most part. But sorry I can’t say the same about the soprano sitting on the edge of the stage. But that’s often the case with me and soprano soloists who sound shrill and as if they’re screaming, unable to control their voice and able to overpower everyone on that stage and often seem oblivious to doing so. She’s from the Opera genre and oratorio is not opera. Opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a large-scale concert piece. I think many people confuse oratorio with opera when opera divas are brought in to scream their way through the solo passages of an oratorio, rather than using all soloists from the Chorus. Someone may be asking, “What’s the difference between opera and oratorio?” Well there are two very clear differences: Opera uses costuming and scenery. Oratorio does not. And oratorio is a sacred work with text from the bible. Opera is usually secular. Acting is used in opera. Acting is not used in oratorio, although I have seen some soloists in oratorio try to bring some acting into their role in oratorio. Elias in his role in this performance does that do some degree. They did also use soloists from the Chorus — I’ve suggested that many times in articles — and some of them sang with some noticeable vibrato when singing as a soloist. But none of them screamed fortunately. They used their choral voice (straight tone; no noticeable vibrato to achieve perfect intonation with the rest of the Chorus) when they returned to the Chorus. With the women soloists (the quartet), their best performance was in the Sanctus (“Heilig, Heilig, Heilig/Holy, Holy, Holy”) beginning at 1.45.26 in the video where the soloists and Chorus answer each other, which then leads into “Go, Return Upon Thy Way.” The soprano with the short reddish hair has a lovely voice and sang her part in the Sanctus beautifully and mostly with a lovely straight tone (no noticeable vibrato). Too bad she didn’t serve as the soprano soloist for the entire performance. I recognise her. I’ve seen her in one or two other Orchestra Choruses in the EU (Deútschland in particular), so with her skill level — and a superb chorister like her — she can sing wherever she wants. And for anyone curious, from what I could tell the vocal score the Chorus was using was the Editions Peters Urtext for this performance from Amsterdam. I guess I should say that the performance was “conducted” by Marcus Creed.
Marcus often looks more like he’s trying to swim than conduct and he doesn’t beat time that often. Or did he at all? His conducting style was not at all how we were taught to conduct at the Conservatory where I trained. We were taught in the style of Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis, which is not at all how Marcus conducts. Too many conductors these days just wave their arms around and they think that’s conducting. Chau.—el barrio rosa