Sunday, 18 October 2009

LPO/Masur - Mendelssohn: Elijah, 17 October 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Elijah – Alistair Miles
The Widow – Melanie Diener
An Angel – Renata Pokupic
The Queen – Sarah Castle
Obadiah – Topi Lehtipuu
Ahab – Tyler Clarke
The Child – Freddie Benedict
Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
James Oldfield (bass-baritone)
Jimmy Holliday (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur (conductor)

It was not immediately clear to me why Mendelssohn’s Elijah – ‘the Elijah’, as the Victorians liked to call it – was considered an appropriate work with which to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Handel’s Joshua might have been a more obvious candidate. Yet, whilst I doubt this was the reason, insistence that one’s god should be the only one in town, whether God Himself or that of ‘the market’, and the terrible wake of such triumphalism – look at small-town and rural Saxony or Thuringia today – exert their toll both upon drama, at least to a modern audience, and upon ‘real life’. The actual reason, I am sure, was the identity of the conductor, Kurt Masur, who, unlike the vultures who have since descended upon the former ‘Eastern Bloc’, showed genuine courage during the revolt of 1989 in Leipzig. He, moreover, unlike Elijah, contributed to a peaceful outcome: no command to slaughter the prophets of Baal there. Mendelssohn has always been of great importance to Masur, not least during his period at the helm of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. And his recording of Elijah has, ever since it was made, served as the prime recommendation for the oratorio. Such was reason enough, more than reason enough, for the performance. Frequent announcements concerning the Berlin Wall and a non-too-reticent firm of London solicitors sponsoring the event – is that why people risked their lives to evade the border guards? – were unnecessary at best.

I have dwelled on the presentation since the presentation was so apparent, but it was ultimately, of course, the performance that mattered. It, I am delighted to report, was of a very high standard, confirming Masur’s continuing strength in this repertoire. He made none of the mistakes self-righteous ‘authenticists’ make: crispness of attack need not entail driving too hard; contrapuntal clarity need not entail any loss to weight of choral or orchestral texture; dramatic flow need not entail loss of grandeur; lack of undue piety need not entail loss of humanity. And why should he? Masur has been conducting the music for decades; he has nothing to prove, no need to attack his predecessors; he has relied upon musical values throughout his career, so has no need to resort to pseudo-historical ‘justifications’. A work is never, and should never be, uninterpreted, but Masur’s unaffected understanding imparted the illusion that this might have been the case. Secure enough with the score sometimes to allow the musicians to play for themselves, direction was always there when needed. If inspiration dropped somewhat during the second part, this is no comment on the performance, simply the work itself and the lesser dramatic opportunities afforded and taken by Mendelssohn. Victorian pieties are a little too present, at least for the present writer’s taste, in some of this music. But overall, it was Handelian drive and dignity, the two working in tandem, which characterised Masur’s performance. (Incidentally, it sounded as though he would be an ideal Handel conductor, though the chances of hearing that must be slim, to say the least.)

The London Philharmonic sounded resplendent in from the opening bars, the Overture, which follows Elijah’s opening recitative, providing ample occasion both to appreciate its performance and to prepare oneself for the drama to come. There was especially fine solo work from woodwind principals, Jaime Martin (flute) and Daniel Bates (oboe). The latter’s obbligato contribution to the arioso, ‘Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen,’ was profoundly moving, quite outstanding. And the brass made the most of their opportunities, whether menacing or rejoicing, without ever sounding the slightest bit brash. The London Philharmonic Choir was outstanding: full of tone and equally incisive of attack. Large forces are called for here and the thrill of large forces we received.

Alistair Miles assumed the title role at short notice, given the indisposition of the advertised John Relyea. Whilst Miles lacked the sheer tonal refulgence Relyea might have brought to the role, no one could have been disappointed by this eminently musical performance, stentorian as the prophet himself. Melanie Diener proved an equally fine soprano, both as the Widow and in other solos: dramatic without veering towards the operatic. It was a pleasure to hear Topi Lehtipuu’s lyric tenor as Obadiah, earnest as the role should be, Tamino-like in heft. Special mention should go to the spellbinding treble contribution from on high of Freddie Benedict. Most composers – and librettists – would surely have made more of the Queen (Jezebel), but Sarah Castle, another late substitution, did what she could; indeed, all of the smaller roles were well taken. This, rather than any spurious ‘Berlin Wall’ connection, was something to celebrate.