A specially chartered steam train took performers up to Birmingham for the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846. A multitude of musicians was assembled in the Town Hall for the occasion, including a huge orchestra and a choir of more than 300 – not to mention, according to Mendelssohn’s own description, 60-plus “bearded altos”.
In researching and trying to replicate the oratorio’s premiere last weekend, conductor Paul McCreesh left no spared expense. The BBC Proms have offered some massive performances in the course of this season’s Sunday evening choral series and this was another whopper. Roger Wright, emperor of the BBC Proms, is certainly delivering the sold-out crowds their “bread and circuses”.
In theory, the main interest lay with the orchestra. McCreesh’s period-instrument band, the Gabrieli Players, was doubled in size with a string section so big they could hardly fit on the platform, double woodwind, trumpets and timpani. Three men squashed into the space far right over the stage entrance were playing serpents (a long-extinct brass instrument) but sadly we never heard a squeak out of them. The three ophicleide players, including one wielding what is believed to be the only surviving playable “monstre” ophicleide in the world, fared better, letting out some very rude, low rasping sounds that made the floor vibrate.
In the event, though, the huge and amorphous sound coming out of the orchestra gave the performance less of a boost than the high-quality singing of the choir. McCreesh must have used all his skill as a choral director to get such unanimous singing from his diverse groups. They deserve to be named in full: the Gabrieli Consort, Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale and Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir.
Simon Keenlyside led the solo quartet as Elijah and, if he was not quite the sort of prophet Mendelssohn imagined (“zealous, and yes, even bad-tempered, angry and brooding”) his singing came across with very impressive projection and at times eloquent beauty. Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly were nicely matched as the expressive soprano and mezzo, Robert Murray was the tenor and Jonty Ward the strong treble. These Sunday choral evenings have been the highlight of the 2011 Proms. Maybe they should become an annual fixture?