Double Play: Sounding out the heavens: Reinvigorated Mendelssohn and high-calorie Saint-Saens under review from Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson

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The Independent Culture
MENDELSSOHN: Elijah Soloists, MDR Choir Leipzig, Israel Philharmonic / Kurt Masur (Teldec 9031-73131-2: two CDs)

AND it came to pass that every English choral society in Christendom laid hands upon Elijah. And it was a good sing. Just a good sing? Is Elijah much more than the sum of its lusty choruses and beloved arias? I have my doubts. Masur apparently does not. Agnostics should head this way. From bar one, as Mendelssohn throws down the gauntlet of Elijah's curse (a stunning opening gesture - no ceremony, just four brass chords and the bass soloist's grave warning), Masur puts back the urgency, the fear of God into the Old Testament message: drama, not reverence, imperative tempi, vital articulation, and a chorus in all their guises with the attack and unanimity of true believers.

Nothing less than well-filled lungs will do for the big barnstormers like 'Dank sei dir Gott' and 'Furchte dich nicht', but there is finesse too in the lovable chorus of angels in Part 2, and Masur achieves real uplift with the hymn of thanksgiving for Elijah's ascendancy. Even he cannot disguise a certain worthiness, portentousness, in the tone of the piece, but it's amazing what a good dusting-down can do.

The soloists, too, work overtime spreading the word: more than a lick of greasepaint in their manner. The evergreen Helen Donath is always good value; her big set-piece at the start of Part 2 is all conviction and heart. Jard van Nes uses her dark, curt voice to fiery effect as the Queen, and Alastair Miles is a decent Elijah embracing his two treasurable arias - 'Herr Gott Abrahams' and 'Es ist genug]' - like the old friends they are. All live in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic: really, they're taking authenticity too far these days. ES

THE unfamiliar title on the box - Elias rather than Elijah - isn't simply cosmetic change. If you were brought up within the hearing of a traditional British choral society, chances are Elijah carries at least a whiff of sentimental, self-satisfied Victorian bourgeois piety. But Mendelssohn was a German Jew, worshipper of Beethoven and perhaps the key figure in the early stages of the Bach revival. Restore the original German text, and entrust the score to a fine German choir and conductor, and the veneer of stale familiarity fades.

Performed at Mendelssohn's lively andante, a number like 'For the mountains shall depart' (sorry, 'Ja es sollen wohl Berge weichen') seems soaked in Bach, while some of the choral numbers begin to sound distinctly prophetic of Brahms's German Requiem. Did Brahms get some of his first ideas of the Baroque by way of Mendelssohn's piece?

This new version, distilled from a series of concerts in Tel Aviv last year, may not please all traditionalists, though the dramatic pace and crisp articulation of the Jehovah-versus-Baal sequence has to be hard to resist, and I found the big solo numbers all the more impressive for Masur's refusal to wallow. The main soloists are on the whole firm and persuasive. Alastair Miles strains a little in the highest flights of Mendelssohn's bass writing, but not enough to mar an otherwise stirring rendition as the Prophet of the Jealous God. The choral first soprano soloist is unsteady in the angelic double quartet, but a few early wobbles are soon straightened out.

Otherwise, invigorating and - whatever one thinks of the sentiments - musically uplifting. SJ

SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No 3. MESSIAEN: L'Ascension Orchestre de l'Opera

Bastille / Myung-Whun Chung (DG 435 854-2)

FOR some this coupling will be close to blasphemy; for others there may not be a great deal of difference between the dewy-eyed religiosity of Saint-Saens's slow movement and Messiaen's 'Priere du Christ montant vers son Pere' - except that Saint-Saens's tune is rather more catching. Whatever, the Orchestra of the Bastille Opera plays both works with precision and feeling; the trumpet solo in Messiaen's first movement (modestly entitled 'Majeste du Christ demandant sa gloire a son Pere') is a remarkable feat of sustained phrasing and breath control.

The shaping of the string lines in the Poco Adagio of the Saint-Saens is impressive too, though I thought the pace began to drag a little towards the centre. The only real problem for me in the symphony was the organ-orchestra perspective in the finale - the impression is of a smallish instrument unnaturally boosted. L'Ascension sounds suitably lush and spacious, and Myung-Whun Chung's superaffectionate phrasing comes across intimately in the final 'Priere' - about as far removed from Mendelssohnian supplication as you could imagine. SJ

THE Saint-Saens Third Symphony is its slow movement: the deep breath of organ on its first entry, the mother of sweet melodies wafting in over it - definitely no part of a calorie-controlled diet. Myung-Whun Chung and the Bastille orchestra play it slow, very slow, an appreciative, sighing sostenuto from the violins with double servings of portamento. But then it's all downhill to that frightfully grand (but conspicuously thin) finale.

Chung, splendidly recorded, duly thunders home with the best of them - save, perhaps, Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic, also DG, whose trumpetings are more forthright at the close - though even my toes begin to curl at the celestial transformation of the opening theme in sugary violins replete with warbling piano. Suddenly Messiaen no longer seems quite so remote - I scent 'gardens of delight'.

In fact, only one of the four meditations that make up L'Ascension belies its pre-Turangalla origins: that's the jubilant third, which sounds a bit like early Debussy crossed with Dukas. For the rest, it's a young but remarkably poised Messiaen sounding out the heavens with his protracted chorales and ornithological alleluias.

The final meditation - an unresolved vision laid out for strings alone - eloquently illustrates the measure of Chung's commitment. I wish I could share it. ES

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