Edinburgh Mendelssohn: Elijah Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
"The Tory Party at prayer" is just one waggish description aimed at Elijah in the 150 years since its Birmingham Festival premiere in 1846. The anniversary-obsessed musical world has been busy finding out whether Mendelssohn's oratorio really is as irretrievably stuck in its early-Victorian timewarp as legend would have it. Besides performances at the Three Choirs Festival and the Proms, the Edinburgh Festival's closing concert on Saturday offered the additional interest of a period-instrument performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. This represented rarity value of a high order: how often do we get a chance to hear the Tory Party at prayer and accompanied by an ophicleide?

Elijah's reputation relates to the English oratorio genre itself, whose hegemony Mendelssohn did so much to enshrine in das Land ohne Musik. Clearly he took very seriously his vocation to uphold what were then (never mind now) old musical values in response to the randy iconoclasm of Wagner, Berlioz and Co. There's no shortage of fugal earnestness in Elijah.

You keep wondering what had happened to the composer who had once penned music of the inspirational danger and darkness that propels the Hebrides overture. He could still summon this sound-world when he wanted to - witness the bird-crying woodwind in the exquisite soprano aria "Hear ye, Israel". But he now wanted to so rarely. Even so, Elijah's strong point is its genuine sense of drama. The music describing the prophet's exile in the wilderness has, for all its consciously conservative idiom, an imaginative power as vivid as anyone's.

Paul Daniel's conducting had the waves rolling impressively high in the OAE's performance. Bryn Terfel's magisterial command of the title role encompassed both the minatory fire-power of his challenge to the priests of Baal to "call him louder" (the fine Edinburgh Festival Chorus really tried) and his wonderful pianissimo shading of "the covenant of Thy Peace" - two moments among many that were as near great singing as makes no difference. Among his colleagues, Patricia Bardon's purple-velvet contralto and Sara Fulgoni's lighter, but just as intense, mezzo each appealed strongly as the (good) Angel and the (bad) Queen, while Matthew Munro was convincingly purposeful as the Youth sent more than once up a mountain to watch for rain (you don't argue with Elijah).

The appeal of the OAE's contribution, too, extended well beyond the ideological, particularly the rasping brass and rattling timpani in the Baal choruses. Hard to imagine a wider contrast between this and last week's Proms performance - again with Terfel's Elijah, and with seriously massed choral ranks dwarfing the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in true high-Victorian style. Even so, Richard Hickox's conducting presided over a reading which, on its own terms, was equally convincing. And Janice Watson's lovely singing in the soprano arias was a jewel of rare price.