Mendelssohn: Elijah / Hagel, Capella Weilburgensis
Elijah ( Elias in German) is one of the pinnacles of Mendelssohn’s output and is probably the most famous of all nineteenth century oratorios. It’s his oratorio, a late work completed in 1846 just a year before the composer’s untimely death. As he had done with his earlier oratorio St. Paul ( Paulus in German) Mendelssohn requested that the theologian pastor Julius Schubring assist him in preparing the text. Mendelssohn fashioned Elijah from Old Testament texts largely from the first book of Kings based around significant events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah. Designed in two parts the score was supplemented by texts from Kings II, Psalms, Isaiah and other Old Testament writings.
Mendelssohn himself conducted the première to great acclaim before a packed audience at the Music Festival held at the Birmingham Town Hall in England. A score much loved by audiences and choral societies alike it has remained a staple of the choral music repertory. For this recording the sound quality is excellent and the Profil label is to be congratulated for providing full German texts with an English translation.
Doris Hagel has since 1986 held the position of cantor at the Weilburger Schlosskirche. The German town of Weilburg is located roughly between Cologne and Frankfurt. Hagel and lutenist Lutz Kirchhof were responsible for creating the concert series ‘Alte Musik im Weilburger Schloss’ of which Hagel is artistic director and manager. Founded in 1992 the ensemble Capella Weilburgensis come together at the invitation of Hagel to perform sacred choral music at the Weilburg festival series or for special projects. Notably they play on period instruments employing period-informed performance practice. The Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg specialise in sacred choral music singing throughout the main feasts of the church year. They have become known for their impressive performances of oratorios. In addition to their unaccompanied choral work the choir collaborate closely with the Capella Weilburgensis and L'arpa festante Munich orchestras.
The desolate mood of the brass-laden Overture commands the attention and pertinently reflects the suffering of the drought-stricken Israelites. Splendidly sung by the Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg the chorus proclaim their anguish: Hilf, Herr! Hilf, Herr! ( Help, Lord! Help, Lord!. Worthy of special note is Mendelssohn’s darkly coloured orchestral writing here played with real assurance.
No.2 Herr, höre unser Gebet! ( Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!) includes a beseeching duet Zion streckt ihre Hände aus ( Zion spreadeth her hands for aid) between two Israelites sung by soprano Christine Wolff and alto Britta Schwarz. The two soloists together with the Schlosskirche choir sing with a sure sense of piety and untarnished harmony. Obadiah’s aria in No.4 So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet ( If with all your hearts ye truly seek me) is sung by tenor Markus Schäfer with clear diction and appropriate reverence. Scored for double quartet the Angels sing Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir ( For he shall given his Angels charge over thee) (No. 7). This is a wondrously tender and inspiring pronouncement that God has commanded the Angels to “protect thee”. No.8 Was hast du an mir getan, du Mann Gottes! ( What have I to do with thee? O man of God?) contains the affecting widow’s aria. This is sung by soprano Christine Wolff imploring God to help her dying son. Wolff is radiant of voice and she projects magnificently. Giving reverential attention to the text Klaus Mertens as Elijah makes a moving request to a compassionate God to help the widow’s son. In their duet proper at 6:18 Wolff’s and Mertens’ voices combine in the words Von ganzer Seele ( with all my soul) - all inspiring devotional intensity. In the memorable No. 11 Baal, erhöre uns! ( Baal, we cry to thee) with the people of Israel appealing to God for a response the Kantorei der Schlosskirche sing with fervour yet maintain a fine unison. Elijah’s admonition aria No.14 Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels ( Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel) has a certain consoling quality. With his expressive bass-baritone and striking enunciation Klaus Mertens beseeches the Lord for affirmation for his deeds on behalf of the Israelites. No.17 Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer? ( Is not his word like a fire?) is sometimes known as Elijah’s rage aria. Here the rich and assuring tones of Klaus Mertens with his clear diction serve to accentuate Elijah’s stern and unsettling warning. A lyrical arioso No.18 Weh ihnen, daß sie von mir weichen! ( Woe unto them who forsake him!) is a stark warning to transgressors that destruction will fall upon them. It is beautifully sung by alto Britta Schwarz. With highly appealing timbre Schwarz’s compelling and resounding tones are suffused with pathos.
Part 2 commences with section No.21 Höre, Israel, höre des Herren Stimme! ( Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh). This is a substantial and brilliant soprano aria written by the composer with Jenny Lind ‘the Swedish Nightingale’ in mind. Here we find magnificently reverential singing from Christine Wolff - a real highlight of this release. Throughout I was struck by Wolff’s agreeable and extremely bright tone together with her splendid projection and diction. At 3:00 I especially enjoyed her assured delivery of the text Ich stärke dich! ( I will strengthen thee!). The renowned aria No.26 Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele ( It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life) is Elijah’s movingly sung plea to the Lord for death. The tessitura of the writing admirably suits Klaus Mertens marvellous bass-baritone voice. Another well known section is No.28 Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen ( Lift thine eyes to the mountain) for the trio of Angels. We are treated to quite delightful singing from the sopranos Elke Rehwald-Stahl and Almut Diemer, and alto Dorothée Zimmermann; I assume that they are members of the choir. Another highlight follows with Britta Schwarz as the Angel in No.31 Sei stille dem Herrn und warte auf ihn ( O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him). Schwarz is mightily impressive and gives a smoothly expressive and marvellously controlled account of her radiant alto aria. Also notable is the long lyrical line of bass-baritone Klaus Mertens as Elijah in the arioso No.37 Ja es sollen wohl Berge weichen ( For the mountains shall depart). Weaving in and out of the vocal line the solo oboe obbligato adds significantly to the appeal. The tenor aria No.39 Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten ( Then shall the righteous shine forth) is given a comforting rendition by Markus Schäfer. His fluid and attractive tenor seems perfect for the part. An extended dramatic outburst opens No.41. From 3:44 the section of the quartet Wohlan alle, die ihr durstig seid ( O come everyone that thirsteth) begins with the superb Wolff then followed in turn by Britta Schwarz, Markus Schäfer and Klaus Mertens. There is outstanding interplay between the skilfully controlled quartet of voices who pay appropriate attention to the sacred text. Movement No.42 Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen ( And then shall your light break forth) closes the oratorio. I found the mighty dramatic outburst from the Weilburg choir simply stunning. Hagel directs with assurance, at a beautiful pace and with appropriate reverence. The choir and orchestra are in immaculate form and can stand comparison with the finest.
Rubbing shoulders with this 2011 recording using period instruments is my other first choice conducted by Frieder Bernius with the Kammerchor Stuttgart and Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart on Carus (SACD) 83.215. Bernius’s control is memroable and often exhilarating. The soloists Letizia Scherer (soprano), Renée Morloc (alto), Werner Güra (tenor) and Michael Volle (bass) are well chosen. This is fresh and responsive singing informed by a sense of devotion. Bernius recorded the oratorio in 2007 in the sympathetic and clear acoustic of the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Schwaigern, Germany. An English translation of the German text is provided together with an exemplary English essay from eminent Mendelssohn biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd. Bernius’s double set is the final volume in a twelve volume Carus collection of Mendelssohn’s Complete Sacred Choral Music.
Also on Profil is Wolfgang Sawallisch’s splendid live 2001 Munich recording. Sawallisch’s superb Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir meet all the requirements for this marvellous oratorio. The fine cast of soloists are Michael Volle (bass), Andrea Rost (soprano), Marjana Lipovsek (alto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Letizia Scherrer (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor) and Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano). Recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Herkulessaal, Munich, the first class sound quality impresses with much fine detail and well judged balance (Edition Günter Hänssler PH07019.
For those wanting a recording sung in English I can recommend the account conducted by Paul Daniel using the period instrument forces of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. An added attraction for many is distinguished bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the role of Elijah. Clearly dividing opinion Daniel’s account emphasises more of the dramatic element and is not quite as reverential as many other versions. Released in 1997 Daniel’s cast also includes Renée Fleming (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor). It’s on Decca London 4556882.
In summary, Doris Hagel directs a highly desirable account of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
-- Michael Cookson , MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: PH12034
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor: Doris Hagel
Orchestra/Ensemble: Capella Weilburgensis, Kantorei der Schlosskirche Weilburg
Performer: Britta Schwarz, Christine Wolff, Klaus Mertens, Markus Schäfer