Review: Elijah

LIZZIE BENNETT: ‘Even the sound of the orchestra tuning up was enough to give the audience a taste of the remarkable sound that can be achieved within the Chapel.’

Edward Leach Elijah Iwan Teifion Davies Mendelssohn Trinity College

Friday 14th May, 7.45pm at Trinity College Chapel. £12/£8/£4/free.

On Friday 14th, (narrowly missing a very unlucky date), Trinity College Chapel paid host to a rendition of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’, first performed in 1846. Even the sound of the orchestra tuning up was enough to give the audience a taste of the remarkable sound that can be achieved within the Chapel. As the flautists performed their customary warm-up concerto, the choir made themselves comfortable behind the orchestra, and the brass section carefully emptied their spit valves onto the floor. The soloists entered looking professional and confident (and sporting some rather nice white tie dresses and dress coats) and the conductor, Alexander Shannon, prepared himself for the start. 

At just over two hours, ‘Elijah’ is a lengthy oratorio which requires talented instrumentalists and singers. It was clear that all the performers were capable of performing the music, but somehow there seemed to be something missing. The beginning of the oratorio is remarkably difficult (harder than one would imagine playing four D minor chords to be), and it wasn’t quite pulled off, and it was only midway through the Overture that the orchestra really seemed to find its rhythm.

In general, it felt that the orchestra was simply too loud. The lower notes in the chorus could not be heard easily; only the sopranos’ top notes really sounded out above the orchestra. It may have been better to have a smaller string section, and to instruct the woodwind and brass to pipe down a bit – particularly in the ‘pianissimo’ sections, which did not contrast nearly enough with the ‘forte’ passages. It was noticeable that some of the best sections were those in which the singers were unaccompanied, such as the trio, ‘Lift thine eyes’, and a brief passage in the quartet, ‘O come every one that thirsteth’. The tuning also had its dodgy moments, particularly in the woodwind. However, a special mention must be made for the oboe solo in the aria, ‘For the mountains shall depart’, which was exquisitely played.

The singers were more impressive. The first chorus entry in ‘Help, Lord!’ was appropriately dramatic, as were the choruses at the end of the performance. There were just a few occasions when diction was not entirely clear. The tenor soloist Edward Leach made very few mistakes in his challenging arias, but even though his voice rang out in the Chapel’s acoustic there was very little emotion shown, and as such it did not hold the audience’s attention as much as it may have done: it would have been better if he had relaxed more and concentrated on singing the words rather than the notes. Having said this, the exchange between Elijah (Iwan Teifion Davies) and Ahab (Edward Leach), in which each accuses the other in election-debate-style of troubling the peace of Israel, was fantastically exciting, and jerked many of the audience out of their seats.

Similarly, the two female soloists were very convincing: Anna Harvey’s performance as Queen Jezebel was suitably evil, and made a pleasing contrast to the angelic aria, ‘O Rest in the Lord’. Isabella Gage, meanwhile, opened the ‘Second Part’ with a near-perfect rendition of the demanding aria, ‘Hear ye, Israel’, which was sensitively and intelligently phrased, and in which the top notes soared out beautifully to fill the whole Chapel. Davies’ performance as the protagonist seemed shaky at first, but quickly settled down, and was performed musically and with aplomb. Lastly, the treble solo passages were admirably performed by Luke Fitzgerald – hopefully we will see more of him in the future.

This performance of Elijah was somewhat mixed. The choir and orchestra made a fantastic sound in the louder and more dramatic passages, but there was a certain lack of sensitivity in quieter sections, and as such the work seemed to lose a large part of its meaning. However, the overall impression was of a good performance, with talented soloists supported by an able orchestra and chorus.