Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio masterpiece Elijah has been a perennial favorite of European and American choral societies since its composition, but one infrequently has the opportunity to hear a subscription series performance of it by a symphony orchestra. Before their current performances, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had only previously performed it in 1980 (at Symphony Hall and later at Tanglewood) and in 1889 (in Pittsburgh). The advantage of a major orchestra is the collaboration of a world-class chorus and vocal soloists, and indeed we were thus blessed. We were also hugely fortunate in having two excellent artists available to be last-minute substitutions in these concerts in the first week of April for indisposed Music Director James Levine and Latvian tenor soloist Aleksandrs Antonenko, who was to have made his BSO debut. (I attended Thursday, April 1.) Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos has not only been an especially popular guest conductor with the BSO in recent seasons, but also made one of the definitive recordings of Elijah in 1968. And the internationally renowned American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey took over the tenor solos on very short notice. These performances are using the original German version of the libretto, the first Mendelssohn set though not the first performed. (I have assumed most readers will have more familiarity with the English translation and have used its titles and text throughout.)
Shenyang, a young Chinese bass-baritone, took the title role and, in Mendelssohn’s striking innovation, laid his curse on Israel even before the orchestra had a chance to play the overture. He has a fine, firm medium-sized voice with a good cutting edge that helps it carry over the large orchestra. Mr. Shenyang effectively set the ominous mood with the assistance of the wind instruments, particularly the blatant fortissimo tritone in the brass.
The orchestra began the fugal overture with a whisper in the low strings and steadily gathered power in a well-judged build-up to an orchestral climax first and then the electrifying chorus entry, “Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?” This first chorus is followed by another unusual feature: choral recitative in which each section of the chorus has a phrase to itself. These were elegantly, poignantly shaped. Two women are heard next (Zion spreadeth her hands for aid), and the soprano and mezzo soloists, Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe, listening intently to each other, seemed like a beautiful voice singing in harmony with itself. They are followed by the tenor’s first appearance, as Obadiah. Of all the soloists, the tenor probably gets the least dramatic material, his solos being largely narration, warnings to Elijah of impending danger, or “the good news.” Nevertheless, Mr. Griffey sang the aria, If with all your hearts (an example of the last category), with earnestly sunny manner and generous if not ideally focused tone.
For my taste, though he sang very capably, Mr. Shenyang was too understated as Elijah. He seemed chary of exploiting the virtually operatic range of the character Mendelssohn has offered him. In his series of recitatives alternating with the chorus of Baal-worshippers, Elijah actually shows the unthinkable (for a stern Old Testament prophet): a sense of humor, even sarcasm. He adjures the Baal-worshippers to call their god more loudly since he may be conversing, hunting, traveling, or even sleeping. This was delivered virtually deadpan, more subtly than the text seems to warrant. Also, Elijah, appropriately, gets the most fiery of all the solo arias, “Is not His word like a fire?” This is marked “Allegro con fuoco e marcato” and follows the sizzling chorus, “The fire descends from heaven”; Mr. Shenyang delivered the aria cleanly but with fires banked. His virtuosity is beyond dispute, but it was not often put at the service of the text.
The chorus by and large has the most exciting music. The succeeding chorus, “Yet doth the Lord see it not,” powerfully conveys the desperation of a people still suffering under Elijah’s curse. Other thrilling choral high points include “Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty land”; “Woe to him!”; “Behold, God the Lord passed by”; “Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire”; and A”nd then shall your light break forth.” The BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus generated great excitement in all of these and displayed contrasting subtlety when appropriate. The TFC’s performing from memory, as is their custom, allowed Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos to take rubato where he chose, resulting in a feeling of natural spontaneity.
The female soloists also demonstrated admirable versatility. Ms. Brewer and Ms. Blythe are both blessed with ample, Wagnerian-scale voices and did not hesitate to display their full glory where it suited the music. Ms. Brewer made a stirringly heroic cry of “I am He that comforteth” (the second part of “Hear ye, Israel”). And in a sequence of ever-more-furious recitatives, Ms. Blythe positively reveled in her role of Jezebel, working up the bloodlust of her followers to fever pitch before sending them out to slaughter Elijah. Using liberal chest voice and glottal stops breaks all the “nice girl” rules of singing, but Jezebel is a long way from a nice girl. But what a joy it was to hear these same two ladies completely “change costumes” to be part of such literally angelic ensembles as “For He shall give His angels charge over thee”; “Lift thine eyes to the mountains”; and “Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord.” The first of these featured a whole second quartet consisting of soprano Meredith Hansen, mezzo Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, tenor Steven Tharp, and bass-baritone David Kravitz joining the headline soloists. All eight singers sang with such admirable attention to each other and the overall blend, it was all but impossible to tell Soprano I from Soprano II, Tenor I from Tenor II, and so forth. Ms. Hansen also joined Ms. Brewer and Ms. Blythe a cappella for an enchanting, seraphic “Lift thine eyes.” Special mention must be made of treble Ryan Williams who in the role of the “weather report boy” ascends to a hilltop to look for the cloud indicating the end of the drought Elijah imposed on Israel. Mr. Williams, a chorister at Trinity Church, Copley Square, sang with delectable purity of tone and perfect intonation. His concentration was unflappable even in the midst of rising drama, and he was rewarded with several curtain calls at the conclusion of both halves of the performance.
Boston Symphony subscribers should be more than grateful for the exceptional leadership of Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos and his willingness to take over such a large task on very short notice. While his love and mastery of this oratorio go back decades, the piece is never an easy or minor undertaking, and he thoroughly distinguished himself. He conducted with all the passion and vigor of a young man, seasoned with the wise artistic decisions reflecting his many years of experience. While we may regret missing this opportunity to hear James Levine conduct this quasi-operatic oratorio, it is no small boon to hear Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct Elijah with such distinguished performers.
The concert repeats on Saturday evening