Elijah has a momentous homecoming

Elijah has a momentous homecoming


norman lebrecht

November 08, 2019

CBSO at Symphony Hall *****

Review by Christopher Morley for SlippedDisc/CBSO100.

Birmingham owns Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The oratorio, one of the undoubted choral masterpieces of the 19th century, was premiered at the Town Hall under the composer’s direction in 1846, and ever since that triumph both the city and the work have been synonymous with each other.

And no time more so than at the present. Last week the CBSO Chorus received an immense ovation when they performed it in Monaco with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under principal conductor Kazuki Yamada. Yamada is also principal guest conductor of the CBSO, to whom he brought the Chorus back home last night for a truly tremendous account of the work (never mind the fact that we over-ran 20 minutes more than the advertised length, this was bliss).

His conducting persuasive, supple, elegant and expansive, Yamada secured a reading which was at once dramatically paced and richly reflective. Julian Wilkins’ Chorus spat venomous diction as well as bringing warmth and devotion in their fear of the Lord, and balances between chorus and orchestra were exemplary, dynamics judiciously judged; my only cavil (don’t beat me up, chaps) is that the tenor tone thins out below mezzo-forte, but this can be worked on.

We also had an eloquent solo quartet. Keri Fuge brought an operatic fervour and frequent radiance  to her numbers, Karen Cargill had an almost Lady Macbeth-like rabble-rousing interplay with the chorus, and Robert Murray brought much ardent sweetness to his contributions.

As Elijah Matthew Brook was simply outstanding. No stentorian stand-and-deliver Old Testament prophet here, but a portrait of a man vulnerable, capable of sardonicism when he taunts the followers of the false god Baal, and one full of self-doubt. His “It is enough” was heart-stopping, aided by Eduardo Vassallo’s mournful cello obbligato.

And all Vassallo’s colleagues in an on-fire CBSO brought Mendelssohn’s surprisingly operatic score to vivid life. What would it have been like to review the premiere of this amazing piece all those years ago. Bring me my Tardis.



  • Paul Brownsey says:

    Matthew Brook is a great performer who deserves greater recognition.

    • MusicBear88 says:

      Absolutely. I was just listening to him on a couple of Dunedin Consort recordings, and I had the privilege of recording Creation with him a few years ago and he was magnificently expressive.

  • Sasha Mäkilä says:

    But why a solo quartet? Mendelssohn himself performed the work with nine soloists (Elijah plus a double quartet), and when I had the luxury to conduct this work a couple of weeks ago, I chose to do the same. Years ago, when I was assisting Kurt Masur in Paris, we had an even larger ensemble, 13 soloists including a boy soprano (which I think is a recent invention).

    • Peter Macklin says:

      We live in the real world of cost constraints……

    • Appleby says:

      Ah…imagine operating in a funding climate where doubling the number of soloists is simply a matter of artistic choice.
      How the other half live!

    • Una says:

      Fine if the society has spare money for such a luxury of nine soloists, but four is the norm in Britain. The difference between a society finding at least £4,000 for the soloists bill than £9,000 for nine soloists if they get a grand each.

  • Chris says:

    I attended the performance in Symphony Hall, and I too consider the performance to have been momentous. Only one addition to what the reviewer wrote, (and I had Birmingham connections with the instrument I am about to mention) which is to commend the oboe solo in the arioso sung by Elijah towards the end of the piece. According to the programme listing it was played by Emmanuel Rolland – quite, quite beautiful.

  • I have also conducted it three times with nine soloists and a solo trio. It helps for angelic roles to sound and look different than evil queens and distressed widows. Indeed, Elijah is an operatic role, with emotional extremes and even some theological questions. It has been a great joy to conduct this work. The audiences, in
    sold-out houses, are always enthusiastic. Congratulations to Matthew Brook, Kazuki Yamada, Julian Wilkins and the CBSO! Perhaps there is a recording coming up?