Mendelssohn Elijah 1846
Paul McCreesh, Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort & Players
Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray, Simon Keenlyside, Jonty Ward
Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme:
Chetham’s School of Music Chamber Choir, directors Martin Bussey and Stephen Threlfall
North East Youth Chorale, director John Forsyth
Taplow Youth Choir, director Gillian Dibden
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, director Greg Beardsell
To access a wealth of information about this recording, please follow the links below.
Inevitably, researching a project such as this opens all sorts of doors into the musical world of the mid-nineteenth century. This recording is based both on the original August 1846 Birmingham Town Hall performances, for which we are blessed with considerable evidence, and the first London performances at Exeter Hall in April 1847, for which information is harder to find. Maybe this itself is partly a reflection of the different organisations. At Birmingham one can almost smell the civic pride – a determination to rival anything that could be heard within the British shores. No expense was to be spared; many of London’s finest musicians were brought up on a specially chartered steam train and the extensive programme booklet proudly lists the names of every performer and their home town. For the Exeter Hall performances, one senses a different complexion – a society for whom the quasi-religious participation of a greater number of amateurs was perhaps more important than the actual performing standard; although in later years this society was much rejuvenated by the conductor Michael Costa.
We have taken certain decisions based largely on the Birmingham performance, replicating both the size of the orchestra (a very large string ensemble with doubled woodwind, trumpets, drums and ophicleides, but single horns and trombones) and a chorus of around 300. (We have however eschewed the dubious luxury of 60 plus 'bearded altos', to use Mendelssohn's own description!). The London musicians – about two thirds of the string band and single wind players – rehearsed in the capital with the soloists before travelling to rehearsals with the chorus and local musicians in Birmingham. This probably suggests a solo/ripieno division of orchestral forces between the arias and the choruses, which is employed here.
This great period of industrial innovation clearly had its effect on the nineteenth century orchestra. The trumpeters play an adapted form of English slide trumpet, as developed by Thomas Harper, who played alongside his son in the first performance. It allows for occasional chromatic notes but is still fundamentally a natural trumpet, as indeed are Mendelssohn’s trumpet parts. Two ophicleides underpin the brass section, in place of the later tuba, and they are augmented by a real curiosity – a contrabass or 'monstre' ophicleide; this extraordinary instrument was purchased by the Birmingham Festival in the 1830s, and was played by a well-known French virtuoso, Monsieur Prospere. There is apparently only one similar instrument remaining in the world in playable condition, and for this recording it was kindly provided by Ron Johnson of Albany, NY, to whom we are especially grateful. We have also added serpents to the choral bass line, as seems to have been a tradition – sometimes derided – of the Sacred Harmonic Society until very late in the nineteenth century. Conversely, the drums included the large set of 'Tower drums', quite possibly the same instruments Handel had used some hundred years earlier. The enormous size of these drums suggests that they were probably tuned to a lower octave whenever possible, creating a quite spectacular effect. Clearly the Victorians were particularly attracted to big bass instruments; the Sacred Harmonic Society’s posters frequently advertise '500-700 performers including 16 double basses'. At Birmingham the magnificent organ was designed to support large choirs. Mendelssohn himself advised on revisions to the instrument, which had the first full 32-foot speaking stop on an English organ, mounted at the very front of the instrument for greatest acoustic – and visual – impression
It is extraordinary how Elijah – by far the most popular oratorio of the nineteenth century – fell from grace in the twentieth century. In recreating this huge Victorian event the aim is not to indulge in historical fantasy but to try and re-discover the power of this extraordinary work and why it inspired a whole generation.
Paul McCreesh, 2012
The Birmingham Triennial Festival developed from the Birmingham Music Meetings, which started in 1768 and continued, sporadically, until the Handel Commemoration Festival in 1784. The aim of the festivals was to raise funds for Birmingham General Hospital – they were ‘society’ events incorporating a series of musical performances, and, on the final evening, a grand ball held in a local hotel. In common with other English festivals such as Leeds and The Three Choirs (Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester), the early performers were all professional, comprising boys and men from local Cathedral and church choirs, with soloists singing with the choir. However, during the 19th century, slowly, over time, women replaced the boy sopranos. By the time of Elijah, in 1846, only four boys remained in the chorus, yet all the altos were still male – indeed, Mendelssohn expressed surprise at ‘the bearded altos’. The first female altos joined the chorus in 1847 ‘as an experiment’, but after that time the chorus became predominantly amateur, with some professional support, and women sang both alto and soprano parts. Even in the early years, the orchestral players were of the highest standard, mainly drawn from the London theatre and concert orchestras. The vocal soloists included many performers with international reputations, often recruited from continental Europe. The last Birmingham festival took place in 1912. The legacy of the Birmingham Festival is quite outstanding and included premieres of major oratorios by Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Parry, Bruch, Gounod and, perhaps most prominently, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In 1799, Joseph Moore, a local solicitor, became festival director, and it was during his inspired leadership that Mendelssohn was persuaded to come to Birmingham. He was no stranger to England, having first visited London in 1829. Moore invited him to the 1837 and 1840 Birmingham festivals as pianist, organist and composer. The remarkable celebrity status he soon achieved (and the downturn in receipts for the 1843 festival, from which he was absent) made him the obvious choice as resident conductor for the 1846 festival and he was commissioned to write a new oratorio for the occasion. In the event, Mendelssohn wasn’t well enough to conduct the whole festival but he agreed to compose and conduct Elijah. Mendelssohn had begun to plan a major choral work based on an Old Testament subject as early as 1837. He had extensive discussions with his close friend, Karl Klingemann, but although they remained on good terms, Klingemann eventually declined to write a libretto. In due course, the Birmingham commission stimulated Mendelssohn to return to the project and Julius Schubring was persuaded to undertake the task of writing a libretto, in German. Mendelssohn’s correspondence with Joseph Moore indicates how difficult he was finding the commission, even suggesting, only four months before the festival, that another of his completed works, Athalie, should be performed instead. One can only conjecture at the relief of the festival commitee when they received Mendelssohn’s letter of 8 May 1846: "I intend to send the whole of the first part of my oratorio in the course of the next fortnight. It is by far the greater part of the two; the choruses from the second part will be in England towards the beginning of July, and the rest of the whole by the middle of that month. All this, Deo volente."
Much though remained to be done. The German libretto required translation which, at Mendelssohn’s request, was commissioned from William Bartholomew in London, following past successful collaborations. The chorus-parts needed to be engraved and printed before the chorus could be trained in time for the performance on 26 August. In fact, Mendelssohn was still making changes and revising both score and parts (using a system of colour-coding) as late as the London rehearsals the week before the premiere. The correspondence between Mendelssohn and Bartholomew during the translation process is revealing. Conducted entirely in English, it shows Mendelssohn’s impressive grasp of the language and the meticulous interest he showed in the translation, not only in matters of word accentuation but also in respect of the need to translate the libretto’s Lutheran phraseology into that of the Anglican King James Bible. The partnership between Mendelssohn and Bartholomew was very much one of true equals; Mendelssohn frequently suggested textual amendments and in turn accepted many of Bartholomew’s musical revisions where it better served the English language. Indeed, the overture itself, lacking in the original plan, was written at Bartholomew’s instigation. It was usual for the Birmingham Festival to attract some of the finest singers from both the UK and continental Europe. Typically a dozen or so singers were engaged for each festival, and the solo roles shared amongst them. Mendelssohn was particularly concerned about the part of Elijah and wrote to Joseph Moore on 8 May 1846: "The most essential condition for my Oratorio is a most excellent barytone-singer – a man like Pischek, or Staudigl, or Oberhofer." The festival committee secured the services of Joseph Staudigl, who proved a towering success. The soprano part was originally intended for the famed ‘Swedish nightingale’ Jenny Lind, although in the event she was unable to appear and only sang the role after Mendelssohn’s death. In the first performance the part was sung by Maria Caradori-Allan; Mendelssohn’s evident irritation, expressed in a letter to a friend, tells us much about his vocal ideals: "… the worst was the soprano part… all so pretty, so pleasing, so elegant, at the same time, so flat, so heartless, so unintelligent, so soulless, that the music acquired the sort of amiable expression about which I could go mad even today when I think of it." The other parts were better served; the contralto was sung by Maria Hawes, whose rendition of ‘O rest in the Lord’ so touched Mendelssohn that he abandoned plans to cut the number. Likewise, Mendelssohn lavished great praise on the young tenor Charles Lockey, saying in a letter to his brother that he "sang the last air so beautifully, that I was obliged to collect all my energies so as not to be affected, and to continue beating time steadily." By 1846, Mendelssohn had become the ‘darling’ of the Birmingham Festival and his appearance was greatly anticipated. According to the London Times reporter, the morning of the performance was a bright, clear day, with throngs of concert-goers arriving at Birmingham Town Hall in their various forms of horse-drawn transport, following the one-way system and observing the strict procedures for set-down prescribed by the Triennial Festival Committee. From early morning, New Street, from the Hen and Chickens Hotel at the Bull Ring end to the Town Hall, was thronged with onlookers. The audience also arrived early and the chorus and orchestra were in their places well before Mendelssohn took his place on the rostrum at 11.30am. The performance of Elijah was to last over two and a half hours – eight movements were encored during the performance – and there followed a short interval and a selection of other items lasting a further half hour. A total of 400 performers and an audience of 2000 were in their places for more than three and a half hours, in an auditorium with only one small privy! Both the performance and reception delighted Mendelssohn, but as so often was the case, he felt the need to make further changes. When writing to his London publisher, Mendelssohn described his constant need to change and adjust his compositions as ‘a dreadful disease’ from which he suffered chronically and severely. For the edition to be published the following year, he made a multitude of small amendments to instrumentation, harmony and part-writing; he also undertook more substantial reworkings, including revisions to the libretto, where he felt he could do better justice to the structure. Perhaps the most remarkable revision to the score is in the final section of the work, where the celebration of Elijah as a prophet of the Messiah is substantially elaborated. One notable casualty from Mendelssohn’s editing process was the delightful duet, ‘Lift thine eyes’, for solo soprano and contralto with string and woodwind accompaniment. Chorley, the music critic of the Athenaeum related the story that Mendelssohn, after the performance, said to him in his merriest manner, “Come, and I will show you the prettiest walk in Birmingham.” Mendelssohn then led Chorley and other friends to the banks of the canal, at Gas Street Basin. There, on the tow-path between the bridges, they walked for more than an hour discussing the new oratorio. According to another member of the group – Mr Moore – it was there and then, amidst the scenery of the coal and cinder heaps, that a sudden thought struck Mendelssohn to change the duet in to the now famous trio. For all Mendelssohn’s desire to make further artistic improvements, it is hard to underestimate the success of the first performance of Elijah. It was clearly one of the great days in Mendelssohn’s life, as he expressed in a letter to Frau Livia Frege dated 31 August 1846: "the rich, full sounds of the orchestra and the huge organ, combined with the powerful voices of the chorus, who sang with sincere enthusiasm; the wonderful resonance in the huge grand hall, an admirable English tenor; Staudigl too, who took all possible pains and whose talents and powers you already well know, some very good second soprano and contralto solo singers; all executing the music with special zest and the upmost fire and spirit doing justice not only to the loudest passages, but also to the softest pianos in a manner which I never before heard from such masses; and, in addition, an impressionable kindly hushed and enthusiastic audience – now still as mice, now exultant – all this is indeed sufficient good fortune for a first performance. In fact, I never in my life heard a better, or I may say one as good; and I almost doubt whether I shall ever again hear one equal to it, because there were so many favourable combinations on this occasion."
Derek Acock, 2012
Recording reviews will follow shortly after the release of the disc, but in the meantime, why not reflect on our BBC Proms performance of Elijah, which immediately preceded the recording sessions in August 2011…
"When Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort & Players take on a project, they go the whole hog ... The combined result was a wall of sound of thunderous depth that almost knocked you over..." Geoff Brown, The Times, 30 August 2011
"...Fielding a Mahlerian sized orchestra full of period touches ... Paul McCreesh went all-out for the full Victorian monty in a hall (and a festival) which demanded nothing less..."
"...The wonder here was that so many voices could so cleanly articulate the exuberance of Mendelssohn’s choral writing ... not just rousing in the best sense of the word but airy – a seeming contradiction of lightness and heft held in perfect accord..." Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 30 August 2011
"...They made a splendid and highly-coloured din ... the clattering timps and rasping ‘natural’ brass brought a frisson of terror..." Ivan Hewitt, The Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2011
"...Orchestrally this BBC Proms performance was wonderful. Instruments like serpents, originally used in warfare to scare the enemy – baroque fantasy put to practical use. Slide trumpets which still sound natural and relatively unpitched. Goatskin timpani. The Royal Albert Hall Organ restricted to period stops and pipes. Two ophicleides augment the brass, and a magnificent contrabass ophicleide..."
"...Exceptionally precise singing ... perfect co-ordination, but even better, great enthusiasm and commitment..."
"...McCreesh and the Gabrielis prove the power of period practice..." Anne Ozorio, Opera Today, 30 August 2011
"...McCreesh was aided by what was easily the most impressive, sensitive and strapping choral craft of the Prom season..." Igor Toronyi-Lalic, The Arts Desk, 30 August 2011
"...No one would quibble with the high aims of this performance, or help but marvel at its gargantuan forces ... Visually as well as sonically, this was a mammoth spectacle..." George Hall, The Guardian, 29 August 2011
"...McCreesh had the measure both of the work and of his huge forces. He might have been conducting a madrigal, so extraordinary was his attention to detail; moreover, his interpretation was often revelatory ... As a sonic spectacular, this was an evening rich in contrasts..." Mark Valencia, The Classical Source, 28 August 2011
"...some of the finest choral singing of this Proms season..." Alexandra Coghlan, The New Statesman, 2 September 2011
"...The most impressive aspect of the two-hour performance was, for me, the transparency, the downright honeyed eloquence of this massed choral singing – intelligible words in sumptuous floating layers ... Nearly as impressive was the playing, meticulously researched by McCreesh..." Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 4 September 2011
"I doubt even the Victorians would have enjoyed Mendelssohn's crowd-pleaser in a performance of such fabulous excess. A truly amazing ad-hoc choir stole everyone's thunder – everyone's except Elijah's, that is, transported to Albert Hall heaven in his fiery chariot." Edward Seckerson, The Independent’s Cultural Pick of the Year, December 2011
This recording, the second in a series of recordings of major oratorios, continues the collaboration between Wratislavia Cantans, the National Forum of Music and Gabrieli Consort & Players. I am particularly indebted to Andrzej Kosendiak, General Director of Wratislavia Cantans, and the Mayor of the City of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz; without the ongoing support of these two enlightened men and the financial commitment that they have made to this series, it would not be possible to record this wonderful repertoire. I am most grateful to the BBC Proms for presenting a live performance of Elijah at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2011 season. Additionally, I would like to thank those who have supported both the recording and the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, especially Richard Brown, Jan Louis Burggraaf, John Cryan, Sir Vernon and Lady Ellis, Alan Gemes, Ron Haylock, Patrick and Valerie McCreesh. Finally, I am grateful to a number of scholars who have assisted my research, most notably Derek Acock and Rachel Milestone. Paul McCreesh
WROCLAW - WRATISLAVIA CANTANS - NATIONAL FORUM OF MUSIC
The city of Wroclaw in south-west Poland is both a deeply historic and dynamic modern-age city where economic growth and cutting-edge technology co-exist alongside a lively and flourishing cultural scene. It is home to one of Europe's oldest universities and to numerous festivals, of which the most widely known is Wratislavia Cantans, founded in 1966 by the great polish conductor, Andrzej Markowski. For over 46 years Wratislavia Cantans has welcomed many outstanding artists to the beautiful ancient churches and historic buildings within the City of Wroclaw and in the surrounding area of Lower Silesia; it has recently been revitalised and expanded by its general director Andrzej Kosendiak and its artistic director, Paul McCreesh. The festival honours the vision of its founder in celebrating choral and vocal music of all sorts, especially that from within the oratorio tradition; it also seeks not only to bring many of the world's leading musicians to the city and surrounding Silesian towns, but also to engage these artists in collaborations with the many outstanding musicians resident in the city, in order to create a lasting impact in the city's artistic development.
Wroclaw's growing reputation as an important artistic centre was recently confirmed by the commissioning of one of Europe's most prestigious concert halls, the National Forum of Music. The new complex will comprise an 1,800-seat concert hall, three chamber recital rooms, with office, conference, exhibition and rehearsal spaces. It will be home to Wroclaw's many ensembles and festivals as well as hosting performances by the world's leading orchestras and soloists. Co-financed by the European Union, designed by Prof. Stefan Kuryłowicz and with acoustical supervision by the renowned Artec consultancy, the hall’s opening in 2013 is keenly anticipated. Furthermore, in 2016 Wroclaw will be the European City of Culture.
"...Paul McCreesh, the festival’s artistic director, has a profound understanding of the score and has inspired his Anglo-Polish forces, above all the superb chorus, to feel it with him and to take it to their hearts..."The Sunday Times
"...McCreesh has achieved something quite out of the ordinary in this performance of the Requiem ... the impact is overwhelming..."The Gramophone
This new recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah continues the special relationship between these Anglo-Polish musicians in a different way, bringing the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir to the UK to join Gabrieli and its newly established Young Singers’ Scheme, forming a performing ensemble of over four hundred musicians to record one of the great nineteenth century English oratorios.
John Forsyth, director of the North East Youth Chorale, in discussion with Paul McCreesh about recording Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
John Forsyth: There are many great oratorios that you could have chosen to record. Why Elijah?
Paul McCreesh: In the history of music, few works have enjoyed the astounding success that greeted the first performance of Elijah. Yet today, Elijah is often regarded as a second-rate work: I wanted to go back and discover what it was about this piece that so enthralled 19th century audiences.
What did your research reveal?
For all its iconic status, Elijah is very much a product of its time. However much we might assert that there is one single, enduring religious truth, in fact (as with everything) religious ideas fluctuate with time and fashion. Elijah is not just a great musical work of art but a piece that encapsulates a particular moment of English religious emotion: Mendelssohn also clearly understood the huge artistic possibilities in the emerging English choral society tradition. Of course, Mendelssohn had performed St Paul some years earlier in Birmingham and by now clearly knew how to write successfully for large chorus and orchestra. Elijahis absolutely the greatest example of 19th century English choral writing, albeit from relatively early in the century... and written by a German!
By this stage of his life, the German Mendelssohn was very anglicised, wasn’t he?
? Yes indeed. He was a great favourite and not only amongst musicians – he was even well known to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. He was by all accounts extremely charming. Although Elijah was composed with a German libretto, Mendelssohn clearly desired to create a wholly convincing translation, paraphrasing the bible wherever possible. He engaged in voluminous correspondence with the translator William Bartholomew which, apart from anything else, underlines his extreme fluency in English.
To what extent do you think Mendelssohn’s personality is reflected in his choice of subject?
I think it’s always possible to over-analyse, but it is nevertheless interesting that Mendelssohn’s two great oratorios, St Paul and Elijah, focus on two characters who are on some level outsiders. It is probably no coincidence that Mendelssohn, a foreigner of Jewish descent, embracing both German Lutheranism and English Anglicanism, was attracted to these characters.
How did Mendelssohn handle the dramatic narrative of Elijah’s story?
Elijah – like many oratorios – does not follow one seamless, through-composed dramatic narrative. It is constructed around a series of biblical episodes, events in Elijah’s life, which are then loosely tied together – much as in Messiah. Elijah is often criticised because the majority of the more dramatic sequences are in part one. However, this is to fall into the trap of judging oratorio by operatic criteria. The second part, with its great final apotheosis celebrating Elijah as the foreteller of the Messiah makes perfect religious sense and draws the listener in – as oratorio must – to propose a contemplative religious moral. Within the confines of the oratorio tradition, Elijah is tightly constructed; it is both indebted to the early oratorio tradition, but is also a very modern work. I always feel that the character of Elijah is drawn with immense sympathy; he is not a ‘cardboard cut-out’ saint but a real flesh-and-blood man for whom the moral struggle comes at real personal cost. For us today, his character forms a welcome contrast to the inevitable tendency for Victorian moralising.
There are huge influences at play here aren’t there – Bach’s shadow is especially dominant.
Yes, Bach’s influence on Mendelssohn is widely acknowledged and I’m sure his spirit must have hovered over Mendelssohn throughout his life, especially as he was working in the very same organ loft. Mendelssohn seems in fact to have assimilated the broad heritage of earlier Lutheran music, and not just in the pseudo-chorales; the great chorus of angels, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth’, might almost have been written by Praetorius or Schütz. However, I also think that Handel’s sprit inhabits the piece just as much as Bach’s: all those dramatic moments at the end of part two – especially the fire and whirlwinds of Elijah’s ascent into heaven – seem to speak of Handel’s Israel in Egypt above all else.
Whilst the earlier oratorios to which this work is indebted were generally performed with relatively small choral forces, for this recording you opted to work with extraordinarily large forces. Why?
I’ve always been very concerned to work with forces appropriate to each particular work – I was, after all, the first conductor to have recorded the St Matthew Passion with just solo voices! Handel’s oratorios, even in his own time, were performed with quite large forces – he would certainly have known orchestras of 60 strings and double winds – and late 18th and early 19th century performances of those works were very greatly inflated. Mendelssohn would certainly have heard performances with several hundred musicians. We are blessed with so much material relating to the Birmingham premiere of Elijah that it seemed an irresistible proposition to base our forces on that particular event.
What are the challenges of working with such large forces – not just voices, but a huge orchestra too?
Obviously there are difficulties that are intrinsic to the coordination of such a vast ensemble. However, I am constantly reminded that if, as far as possible, you emulate what the first performers did, you will nearly always get it right. It’s so fascinating. On paper, it is surprising that, for the Birmingham performance, the trumpets and drums were doubled, but the trombones and horns were not: clearly this might create a lack of balance, but there was hardly a moment in the 10 days of this project when I questioned the balance of the ensemble. Of course, the use of period instruments is a significant factor in this, because they are inherently more suited to the delicacies of Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing.
I have to admit that I was amazed at how over 100 string players produced such subtle and nuanced playing.
Yes, I agree that the inherent lightness of the sound was marvellous. The sound of an entirely gut strung orchestra playing with minimal vibrato is immensely rich, beautiful and coloured, because the instruments speak naturally. Mendelssohn’s very detailed articulations also work much more comfortably on these sorts of instruments.
How much time did you spend working with the principal players to prepare for the project?
One of the most wonderful things about this project for me was the feeling that every one of the 400 musicians involved wanted this project to succeed magnificently. The principal players and I spent a great deal of time discussing instruments. At the premiere there would have been a great variety of instruments used – the Birmingham orchestra included many older, often amateur, musicians who we suppose would not have had the most up to date instruments – many would have played violins in transitional baroque/classical style. Alongside them, there would also have been musicians playing more modern instruments, using the new tourte bows. Likewise, some of the instruments would have been set up with the old style equal tension across all four strings whereas others would be working on the newer system using slightly graded tension between highest and lowest strings. To recreate this we assembled a very diverse array of string instruments, to create a mixed orchestra. However, that flexibility was complemented by absolutely rigorous instructions regarding the type of strings used: proper historical stringing – which to be frank is all too often ignored by so-called period instrument orchestras – is a hallmark of Gabrieli’s sound.
I was also struck by how you encouraged the organ to be such an important part of proceedings.
. I think in most sacred music the organ should have a far more prominent role in the sound picture than is currently fashionable. The Birmingham Town Hall organ was of course the most spectacular of its day and we were lucky to be able to record with this organ. It has been dubbed-on electronically because the projection of the sound is so vivid that it would be incredibly difficult to record in the Town Hall and recreate an acceptable recording balance. It’s good to know that sometimes modern technology can enable us to out-do certain aspects of authenticity!
How much work did you have to do on preparing the score for the recording?
Elijah is not a difficult work to edit: there are three very good editions already available, so I didn’t prepare my own edition, as I often do. However, I did do a lot of work on the vocal score, as there are many small differences wich needed resolving. My main area of interest was making the English text work. Mendelssohn entered into correspondence with William Bartholomew regarding the libretto and was obviously at pains to make it work in English, even giving Bartholomew free rein to change the musical notation where necessary. On the whole the quality of the English libretto is really extremely fine, but there remains the occasional problem with uncomfortable word setting, particularly in recitative; and there are also a few problems towards the end of the work, where perhaps one senses composer and librettist under the pressure of time. I have been happy to make a few minor amendments to text and underlay where the word setting and sense can be improved.
For all the success of the premiere, Mendelssohn went on to make further changes – can you describe these?
Although we are basing the performance forces on the Birmingham premiere, we follow the musical text of Mendelssohn’s standard version which includes the substantial revisions that he made for the work’s second performances in Exeter Hall the following year. Whilst the first version, as performed in Birmingham, has been fascinatingly reconstructed in recent years, it is very hard to deny that Mendelssohn’s changes represent a dramatic improvement in matters of form, structure and musical detail.
As well as the emergence of the choral society tradition, I wonder what effect the premiere of works such as this had on the development of music education in the UK. It’s probably no coincidence that the 1872 Education Act, just a few decades later, was the first time that music was included in the school curriculum and of course how are children first taught music...? By singing!
There was obviously a real interest in choral singing at this time. Choral music was certainly regarded as a healthy activity, especially when allied to the promulgation of the word of God. The Sacred Harmonic Society’s performance at London’s Exeter Hall the following year used a chorus and orchestra that contained many amateurs, who would have taken part in the oratorio as a quasi- religious or moral experience. And of course the performance of oratorio for charitable purposes, which goes right back to Handel’s time, would have been a worthy motivation for many involved.
How did you assemble such a vast choir for this recording?
Clearly the sound of a huge choir can be utterly thrilling, but one thing that I am absolutely passionate about is obtaining the same flexibility and beauty of sound from a large chorus that one would demand of a small choir. I always talk about trying to be the ‘world’s largest chamber choir’: I want to emulate the extremely nuanced, coloured and articulate singing that a chamber choir can produce, whilst revelling in the quite extraordinary weight of sound that one can only deliver with such big forces. To my mind, Elijah demands these kinds of forces. As so often with music, if you go back to the crucible of invention, the moments when these pieces come into being, you uncover a central truth, perhaps the essence of what made those early performances so astoundingly successful, and suddenly the work is brought back to life. Above all else, Elijah to me feels like the ultimate ‘community event’, a good century before the term ‘outreach’ had been invented! The joy of this project was that we were able to involve people from many walks of life. This particular production is a continuing celebration of the relationship that I have with the city of Wrocław, who are the sponsors of this recording. In my position as artistic director of the city’s international festival, Wratislavia Cantans, I was able to work again with the wonderful Wrocław Philharmonic Choir alongside my own Gabrieli choir. This project also gave me an opportunity to engage many young people in the joy of massed choral singing, bringing together four of the UK’s leading youth choirs under the banner of the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. This initiative supports these young singers, and the four choirs’ wonderful directors, by giving them the rare opportunity to perform in a professional environment. I am a great believer in the talents of young people and I have long learnt that the higher one raises the bar, the higher they jump. I hope that the success of this project is sound proof of that.
Did you find it difficult to rehearse the piece? There was a great buzz and, as you infer, everyone really pulled together, but it must have been quite a task, to say the least, to manage those forces.
Obviously one of the great challenges for me was to work with an ensemble that ranged from 14 year olds to one of the world’s foremost baritones! One has to address very complicated concepts in a way that is simple enough for some, whilst not patronising for others. In the end, it’s all about teamwork – I would especially like to pay tribute to the Gabrieli and Wrocław singers, who really embraced this project, giving of themselves 100% both musically and personally. The whole project was underpinned by an amazing sense of discovery: professionals sat next to young people, giving advice and guidance as we went along. I know that many of the professionals felt that this was a truly moving experience and a project that they would never forget: that is the most wonderful accolade.
Having worked with many of these young people during the project, I can certainly attest to the fact that they were changed people as a result of the experience.
That’s fantastic to hear. I believe that we have a great obligation to ensure that we don’t neglect the talent of the next generation. The development of our Young Singers Scheme is not geared towards training the next generation of professional musicians – if a few people emerge from the scheme and enter the business then that’s wonderful – but I am just as concerned about developing and inspiring tomorrow’s audiences. Where I can, I want to give these young people an appreciation of this wonderful art and to add in some small part to their experience of all that life has to offer. I think we have to address our approach to core culture. It takes time to learn the language of great art, music and literature but it is deeply rewarding when you take the time. In a fast-moving world, with its emphasis on instant entertainment, the importance of the fine arts becomes threatened: cultural languages, be it art or music, take time to assimilate; this is a world apart from the general pace of modern life. I was not brought up in some rarefied atmosphere with volumes of literature in every room, and still would not describe myself as a renaissance man, but I was blessed with parents and a school that encouraged a degree of experimentation and a connection with the artistic world. I fear that too many young people have no exposure to that. At the same time, I remain pragmatic: obviously not everyone in the world wants to sing Elijah – that’s fine, but it breaks my heart that there are people out there who do want to experience something like this and are not given the opportunity.
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Founded by Paul McCreesh in 1982, Gabrieli Consort & Players are world-renowned interpreters of great choral and instrumental repertoire, spanning from the renaissance to the present day. Their invigorating performances encompass major works from the oratorio tradition, virtuosic a cappella programmes and mould-breaking reconstructions of music for historical events. Gabrieli are acclaimed for their performances of Handel oratorios and Bach Passions and their past recordings with Deutsche Grammophon have garnered numerous international awards.
Gabrieli are regular visitors to the world's most prestigious concert halls. They are associated artists of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław and have embarked on an exciting partnership with the city's foremost choir, the acclaimed Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, with whom they collaborate on international touring.
Gabrieli are increasingly committed to working with young musicians. In October 2010, the Gabrieli Young Singers’ Scheme was launched, establishing partnerships with four leading youth choirs, giving young singers the opportunity to train and perform with Gabrieli’s professional musicians.
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir was founded in 2006 and is directed by Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny. The choir has quickly established itself as a leading force in the Polish choral music scene; its dynamic profile encompasses a wide range of a cappella choral music as well as large-scale oratorio and symphonic repertoire. They work most frequently with the Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra.
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir are increasingly expanding their work across Europe and recent projects have included partnerships with established groups such as Gabrieli Consort & Players and the NDR Orchestra. They have appeared at many prominent European venues and festivals and were the first Polish choir to appear at the BBC Proms. Known for its adventurous and exciting programming, the choir has worked with conductors Paul McCreesh, Jacek Kaspszyk, Krzysztof Penderecki, James MacMillan, Mike Brewer and Bob Chilcott.
Paul McCreesh has established himself at the highest levels in both the period instrument and modern orchestral fields and is recognised for his authoritative and innovative performances on the concert platform and in the opera house. Together with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, of which he is the founder and Artistic Director, he has performed in major concert halls and festivals across the world and built a large and distinguished discography for Deutsche Grammophon.
McCreesh works regularly with major orchestras and choirs, and the larger choral repertoire, such as Britten’s War Requiem, Brahms’ German Requiem and Haydn’s The Creation and The Seasons, feature increasingly in his work. He has established a strong reputation in the field of opera conducting productions of Handel, Gluck and Mozart at leading European opera houses.
McCreesh is passionate about working with young musicians and enjoys established collaborations with Chetham’s School of Music and many youth orchestras and choirs, both in the UK and internationally. He has been Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival since 2006 and has been Director of Brinkburn Music (in Northumberland, UK) for many years.
Born in County Durham, Sarah Connolly studied at the Royal College of Music, of which she is now a Fellow. She was made CBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List.
Acclaimed in the great lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire, her roles include Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Komponist (Ariadne auf Naxos), Didon (Les Troyens), Marguerite (La Damnation de Faust), Romeo (I Capuleti e i Montecchi), Sesto (La clemenza di Tito), Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde), Fricka (Das Rheingold & Die Walküre) and Purcell's Dido, Gluck's Orfeo and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, She is also a noted Handelian acclaimed for her Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, Xerxes, Ruggiero and Agrippina.
She has appeared on the world's major stages including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala and her concert engagements include appearances at the Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Lucerne, Salzburg and Tanglewood festivals and Three Choirs Festivals and at the BBC Proms where, in 2009, she was a memorable guest soloist at the Last Night. She has recorded prolifically and has twice been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Rosemary Joshua was born in Cardiff and studied at the Royal College of Music, of which she is now a Fellow.
One of the most versatile lyric sopranos of her generation she has appeared on many of the world’s major stages including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, the Munich and Berlin State Operas and at the Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. Her roles range from Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni) and Despina (Cosi fan tutte) to the Vixen (The Cunning Little Vixen), Tytania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Anne Trulove (The Rake’s Progress) and Helen in the world premiere of Manfred Trojahn’s Orest. She is particularly associated with the music of Handel and has been acclaimed the world over for the title roles in Semele and Partenope as well as Cleopatra (Giulio Cesare), Angelica (Orlando), Ginevra (Ariodante), Poppea (Agrippina) and Nitocris (Belshazzar).
Equally in demand on the concert platform, she appears with many of the world’s finest orchestras and has sung with such conductors as Bicket, Bolton, Elder, Harding, Harnoncourt, Herreweghe, Jacobs, Mackerras, Norrington and Rattle.
Robert Murray studied at the Royal College of Music and the National Opera Studio. He won second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier awards 2003 and was a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.
He has established a formidable reputation in a wide range of operatic repertoire, from Classical roles such as Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Ferrando (Cosi fan tutte) and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) to Toni Reischmann (Henze’s Elegy For Young Lovers), Benvolio (Romeo et Juliette), Male Chorus (The Rape of Lucretia) and Tom Rakewell (The Rake’s Progress). His engagements have included appearances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; English National Opera; Opera North; and the Salzburg Festival. His recordings include a recital of Brahms, Poulenc and Barber with Simon Lepper, excerpts from Britten’s Gloriana with Edward Gardner for Chandos and he appears on Malcolm Martineau’s Complete Poulenc series for Signum.
Simon Keenlyside was born in London. His roles include Posa (Vienna, Munich, Madrid, Royal Opera), Hamlet (Geneva, Royal Opera, Barcelona), Pelléas (San Francisco, Geneva, Madrid, Paris, Salzburg, Royal Opera), Count Almaviva (La Scala, Royal Opera, Vienna, Munich, Metropolitan Opera), Papageno (Scottish Opera, Paris, La Scala, Metropolitan Opera, Salzburg Festival, Royal Opera, Vienna), Billy Budd (Royal Opera, Vienna, ENO), Don Giovanni (Brussels, Ferrara, Zurich, Royal Opera, Vienna, Tokyo, Barcelona),Wozzeck (Paris) and Macbeth (Vienna).
Simon enjoys extensive concert work and has sung under the baton of many of the worlds’ leading conductors, appearing with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Berlin Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham and London Symphony Orchestras, the Philharmonia, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic to mention a few. He has recorded four recital discs with Malcolm Martineau, of Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, and most recently, an English song disc, “Songs of War”, released in November 2011, as well as a disc of Schumann Lieder with Graham Johnson.
He will return to the Vienna State Opera (Posa, Rigoletto and Wozzeck), the Royal Opera House (Eugene Onegin, Germont Père, Papageno and Macbeth) and the Bayerische Staatsoper (Eugene Onegin, Count Almaviva, Germont Père and Wozzeck). In 2007 he was given the ECHO Klassik award for male Singer of the Year, and in 2011, he was honoured with Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year Award. Simon was made a CBE in 2003.
A chorister since the age of six, Jonty recently concluded his successful treble career as Head Chorister of New College, Oxford. Under Edward Higginbottom’s direction he has gained a deep appreciation of choral music and has amassed numerous concert performances across Europe and North America. Recent recordings include the Mozart Requiem and Couperin Exultent Superi. As a music scholar at Magdalen College School, he continues to sing and is enjoying developing his keyboard (piano and organ) and string (violin and viola) playing in both solo and orchestral contexts.