Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mendelssohn's "Elijah" opens the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 76th season.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA opened the Liturgical Series of its 76th season with a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” opus 20. This writer attended the performance on October 16th 2013 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre. Making his debut with the JSO was Maestro Klaus Knubben, conductor of the Limburg Boys’ Cathedral Choir, which, together with some extra bass singers, formed the chorus in this performance. Soloists were soprano Mechthild Bach (Germany), mezzo-soprano Alison Browner (Ireland/Germany), tenor Markus Schäfer (Germany) and baritone Christoph Prégardien (Germany). The Limburg Cathedral Choir was established in 1967 and comprises 50 singers in concert, chosen from some 140 singers in the overall organization. The choir’s main function is the singing liturgical repertoire for church services; it also tours abroad. Having conducted the choir for 25 years, Knubben, now retiring, was given the visit to Israel as a token of appreciation by the Bishop of Limburg, Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst. The two Israeli performances of “Elijah” were supported by the Goethe Institute.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed “Elijah” a year before his untimely death. In 1837, he had begun working on the text with Carl Klingemann and then with theologian Julius Schubring, both collaborations eventually amounting to nothing. When on a visit to England, the composer was conducting at the Birmingham Music Festival, where the director proposed Mendelssohn write a new oratorio for presentation the following year. The collaboration with Schubring was revived, not without differences of opinion as to what texts to use, they finally agreed on Old Testament texts, using Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and the work came into being. Using a quickly written English version, Mendelssohn conducted it in England in 1846. Instead of an unbroken narrative, the oratorio presents a series of scenes from the prophet’s life, interspersed with prayers and meditations. Mendelssohn had his own clear image of Elijah, in his own words, “energetic and zealous, but also stern, angry, brooding…up against the whole world – yet borne aloft on angels’ wings.” It was Schubring’s idea to place the prophet’s curse before the overture, an effective and original initiative. The singers adopt the roles of specific characters, at times, playing more than one: the baritone soloist is Elijah; the mezzo-soprano represents both an angel and the idol-worshipping Queen Jezebel. The choir embodies the Israelites as well as the priests of Baal (Jezebel’s imported deities), also commenting on the miracles of divine intervention.

Mendelssohn wrote to Schubring that “the dramatic must predominate…and the contemplative, moving aspect…” Klaus Knubben’s reading of it presented the composer’s richly endowed canvas - the people’s suffering, the divinity versus the curse brought on by the Israelites’ inconsistency and the many marvelously vibrant pictorial ideas propelled by the score’s orchestration – such as the descent of fire and the onrush of water in Part One and the whirlwind in Elijah’s ascent to heaven, complete with effects of the storm and pelting rain. The performance we heard abounded in powerful contrasts and internal echoes. The soloists at this concert, all singing with the JSO for the first time, fuelled the emotional plot in an outstanding and convincing range of portrayals. Christoph Prégardien (whose powerful performance of an unconventional scoring of Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey” with Ensemble Pentaedre and Joseph Petric in Jerusalem in March 2011 remains unforgettable in the minds of many of us) presented music and theatre at their best. Prégardien used his extensive palette of colors and his profound understanding of Elijah’s complex character in singing that was tender, humane, confrontational and colored with overwhelming sorrow.
‘It is enough;
O Lord, now take away my life,
For I am not better than my fathers…’
Nothing hindered the range of emotions Prégardien highlighted in the texts and his totally convincing and moving performance of them engaged, convinced and moved the listener.

Soprano Mechthild Bach’s easeful, natural singing served the text’s immediacy; in her depiction of individual suffering with the revival of her child representing the restoring of faith, she communicated with orchestra and audience. In “Hear ye, Israel”, Mechthild Bach’s expressive singing was delicate, haunting and silvery. Dublin-born Alison Browner’s true, bright vocal sound, her fine diction and careful pacing gave rise to shades of expression, her singing of the most delicate sounds reaching all corners of the hall. In her eloquent singing of “O rest in the Lord”, she conveyed the aria’s message of consolation. Markus Schäfer’s large, mellifluous, expressive and well-anchored tenor voice, sounded uniformly well in all registers, contending with the orchestral forces and blending splendidly with Prégardien’s voice.

One does not often hear such an outstanding line-up of soloists in one performance in Israel. Not to be forgotten are the boy soprano soloists (from the Limburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir) and, of course, the richly rewarding vocal ensembles. Klaus Knubben’s work with the cathedral choir brings out the drama and vehemence of the choruses in Mendelssohn’s extensive range of dynamics and choral colors as he plays timbre against timbre. The choristers show confidence and flexibility; their diction is polished, as is their precision in entries, phrase endings and rests. Jerusalem concert-goers were presented with the finest of European musical performance, with attentive and supportive playing on the part of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. An uplifting performance.

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