Mendelssohn’s Elijah—with its booming choruses, fugal counterpoint, beautiful but conservative harmonic progressions, and impassioned melodic lines—has the potential to be the spring season counterpart to Handel’s Messiah in December. Somehow, though, Elijah has never managed to reach anything close to that level of popularity, except perhaps in England, where religious oratorio has always has a long history of frequent performances.
So it was somewhat of a starry occasion when the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus came to Carnegie Hall on April 5 for a one-off performance. The auditorium was nearly full with rapt concertgoers who listened in almost total silence throughout the long (two hour and 40-minute) evening. There are 42 individual numbers, separated by one intermission. The A-level soloists were soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, and baritone Shenyang. It is quite a thing to hear a big chorus—six rows, each with about 22 to 24 singers in it—open their mouths for “Hilf, Herr!” (Help, Lord!), the oratorio’s dark D-minor opening blasts. The chorus had memorized everything and sang without scores. They stood nearly motionless. From my standpoint in the balcony, every time the chorus sang forte it was a rafter-rattling affair; this is what I assume people mean when they talk about Carnegie Hall as an instrument, with the musical vibrations created by instrumentalists and singers putting the hall into play itself.
The young Chinese baritone Shenyang has what I think of as a classic Mozart voice, well modulated, not huge, but expressive. He sang the taxing title role, with his best moments coming during two arias in the oratorio’s second half: the despairing “Es ist genug,” and the hopeful final “Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen” with obbligato oboe solo, just before the chorus’s depiction of Elijah being spirited up into the heavens via a fiery chariot and horses. Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe, who sang a variety of roles such as angels, a widow, and Jezebel, were the evening’s most powerful voices; each voice has a touch of steel, though Blythe’s is the rounder of the two. Blythe projected a range of emotions, from gentler angel proddings to the Queen Jezebel rant, “Warum darf er weissagen im Namen des Herrn?” (Why hath he prophesied in the name of the Lord?), when her voice seemed to expand to 100 voices. Brewer sang the well-known “Höre, Israel” (Hear ye, Israel) to open the second half; her loveliest moment came later when her angel instructs Elijah to cover his face, “Verhülle dein Antlitztook,” and she dropped her voice to a laser-beam pianissimo. (The soprano part was originally written for Jenny Lind.) Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang Obadiah, Ahab, and several small tenor parts, was a substitute for the originally scheduled Aleksandrs Antonenko. I have always liked Griffey’s singing, but his sound seemed a little soft-grained to stand up to Mendelssohn’s direct, somewhat foursquare oratorio style. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was the energetic conductor of the massed forces—the orchestra and chorus appeared happy to have him as substitute while James Levine is sidelined for medical reasons.
The audience—almost entirely an older, white audience—went away happy as well. Everyone should have an opportunity to hear a classic oratorio like Elijah in a space like Carnegie Hall. It has a special kind beauty that comes from its being a secular but devotional group experience. But with not much evidence of a younger, more diverse component in the audience, it felt a little like a dying tradition. I hope not.
Image: Shenyang by Marco Guerra.