Mendelssohn: Elias, Op 70 (Elijah)

Reviewed on Tue 13 Dec, 2016

Thomas Hengelbrock’s performance falls some way between Sawallisch’s visionary fervour and Frieder Bernius’s light textures and scholarly good manners (Carus). The singers are excellent, and there are memorable moments, the pensive opening fugue for example and Michael Nagy’s moving account of Elijah’s ‘Es ist genug’.

Although Mendelssohn took JS Bach’s influence very much to heart, performing Elijah with even a smidgen of period manners carries a warning sign. This is essentially Romantic music, profoundly mid-Victorian in its aesthetic, dramatic, melodramatic, exultant, lyrical and with a ‘philharmonic’ resonance that the likes of Wolfgang Sawallisch (his Leipzig recording, Decca) understood profoundly. Thomas Hengelbrock’s performance falls some way between Sawallisch’s visionary fervour and Frieder Bernius’s light textures and scholarly good manners (Carus). The singers are excellent, and there are memorable moments, the pensive opening fugue for example and Michael Nagy’s moving account of Elijah’s ‘Es ist genug’, Elijah’s plea for God to take his life, ‘for my days are but vanity’. Here the Mendelssohn-Bach symbiosis is unmistakable. But turn to the uplifting chorus ‘Fürchte dich nicht’ (‘Be not afraid’), and Hengelbrock’s raw energy is quite upstaged by Sawallisch’s grandeur and extra breadth, especially at the mid-point, ‘Though thousands languish and fall beside thee [ ... ] yet still it shall not come nigh thee.’ Here I want to be spontaneously drawn to my feet, not left nodding benignly in appreciation of the fine, vigorous singing. I should say that this is Elias (German-language), not Elijah (English), though either option is fine by me. A very, very good Elijah, then, beautifully executed and recorded, but hardly a great one.
–Rob Cowan