Sydney’s massed choral forces help McCreesh drive out the Prophets of Baal, and then some.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

May 16, 2014

It’s been a good year for events in Sydney so far. With Elektra redefining how opera in the concert hall might work, the best Handa Opera to date and now this, a grand choral spectacular that turned the clock back to the heyday of Victorian England.

Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio was written in the spirit of Bach and Handel’s musico-dramatic works for the Birmingham Festival in 1846 by a composer devoted to the works of both of those illustrious predecessors. Unlike the tendency of our own time, which is to scale works down to a few voices per part, the Victorians were fans of going to the opposite extreme. As far as they were concerned it was the more the merrier, and in the case of Elijah, the mightier.

It was a huge hit, and went on to become a staple of English choral societies for the next 150 years. At his best, Mendelssohn prefigures the likes of Parry (listen to Yet doth the Lord see it not). At his most rum-ti-tum it's more like Sullivan (Baal we cry to thee could be out of The Martyr of Antioch). Historical curiosity – after Mendelssohn's premature death the following year, Elijah’s original soprano, Jenny Lind, funded a scholarship in Mendelssohn’s name, singing the oratorio to raise money. The first recipient was that very Arthur Sullivan, whose equally grand Victorian oratorios are alas now out of fashion and almost completely forgotten. If even Elijah has lost ground of late, it’s probably because the forces are harder to muster these days. Until now…

Step up British conductor and re-creator of historical events extraordinaire, Paul McCreesh. He has been doing his ‘original’ Elijah for a couple of years now – his recording on Signum received deserved rave reviews back in 2012 and featured 440 musicians, including 92 string players and over 300 singers. We didn’t quite get the orchestral forces in Sydney (the Sydney Symphony Orchestra could only muster a single ophicleide (courtesy of the indefatigable Nick Byrne), but vocally it was a most impressive turn out with the massed ranks of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Conservatorium High School Choir amounting to over 400 singers!

The first indication that we were in for something special wasn’t a sonorous chord, or any piece of music to be honest. It was the sight of 400 singers standing as one like a mighty phalanx. There was a palpable intake of breath. The deafening outburst of “Help Lord!” settled it – we were in for a roller coaster.

Knowing the work more from recording than the concert hall, what struck me most is how interesting Mendelssohn makes this 'blood and thunder' tale from a musical perspective. The placement of recitative, arioso, quartet, chorus, coupled with McCreesh and his forces' decision to play out the drama before our eyes, easily held the attention for over two-and-a-half hours. It’s serious stuff according to Mendelssohn, but I was genuinely surprised at the work’s heart and spirit. Yes, there’s pomp and circumstance going on, yet there’s a human dimension revealed through the contributions of Obadiah, the widow and especially the angels that prevent it becoming overbearing.

That Paul McCreesh knows the work backwards helps. It may sound crude, but it also helps that he really ‘goes for it’. He shapes Mendelssohn’s score with considerable skill, building his climaxes, ensuring his balance is spot on, revealing a surprisingly rich and nuanced orchestration, laced with imaginative string writing and interesting instrumental combinations. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra should take some credit here. The string sound was warm and full with delicious woodwind contributions throughout, especially from oboe and flute. McCreesh’s on stage division of his forces was also telling – three double basses and a timpanist on each side added to a highly dramatic soundscape.

The choir next, in many ways the hero of the piece, and in many ways the hero of the evening. It was a good, honest, hearty sound – no fancy frills – very much what Mendelssohn would have expected. Straight and true, the blend of young and old voices was excellent. Preparation had been exemplary, revealed in some outstanding dynamic shading and a wealth of accurately placed consonants – particularly welcome given the size of the forces. At their best when communicating the big emotions, they occasionally lacked a steely core on very quiet entries, yet they never gave less than 100 per cent and were able to field an excellent mixed double quartet and a beautifully blended angelic trio. The big moments were thrilling – the Baal choruses rang out loud and clear. The subsequent slaying of the false priests was terrifying while Thanks be to God, underpinned with organ, was exhilarating.

The soloists were equally successful. As Elijah, Andrew Foster-Williams was a revelation. More than simply the old-testament prophet, he dramatized the hopes and fears of a figure that in lesser hands can come over as a blinkered fanatic. Half turning to address the chorus was just one of the felicities in a performance which gave a choral work more than one foot in the opera house. Vocally confident and secure, his rich baritone sailed over all obstacles, helped by the fact that he has the money notes that Mendelssohn always seems to require to ring out on the word “Lord”. His diction was superlative, his use of the text gripping. I’ve never heard an ‘r’ rolled quite so effectively as Foster-Williams’ managed in “Rrrrrrise then, ye priests of Baal”.

Equally striking was the Scottish tenor Thomas Walker as Obadiah. Old-fashioned sounding voices (in the very best sense) are making rather a comeback at the moment and it was a pleasure to hear his beautifully modulated tone. The way he incorporated subtle portamenti and enjoyed the consonants was more ‘period’ than we are sometimes used to today, but very welcome indeed. I notice he trained with Ryland Davies and there was something of that flamboyant, sinuous, almost Italianate sound in his heady top notes.

The two ladies were a good match and produced a lovely vocal blend. Gillian Webster floated her warm soprano with great imagination as she coped with Mendelssohn’s lyrical demands. Her delicate voice was perfect for the celestial aspects of her role, but there was plenty of heft when called for as well. Deborah Humble was well equipped for the wicked Jezebel, spitting fire at the prophet, yet warmly sympathetic in the balmy O rest in the Lord. Her full bodied tone was used with great sensitivity.

A special evening then, especially for choral fans. If you’ve ever felt that Elijah is too long, or dramatically sprawling, try the supersized live experience. You’ll be back for more, I suggest, unless, that is, you're one of those unfortunate prophets of Baal.