The year of 'Elijah': new lease for Oratorio

This seems to be the year of "Elijah!" Oratorios have not exactly been in vogue of late, unless one considers the recordings that strive to perform these choral pieces as they might have been presented in the composer's lifetime.

The form reached a pinnacle of sorts in Victorian England, because the religious themes were deemed very edifying, quite removed from the passions and sensuality of opera. Emotions were noble, and nobly contained. When such values began to be less and less a vital part of the social fabric, oratorios began to slip in popularity, particularly in America. Now Mendelssohn's "Elijah" is a rarity in orchestral concert series.

But this year, "Elijah" has undergone something of a rediscovery, primarily because American baritone Sherrill Milnes has been wanting to do it for some time, and this year schedules meshed to allow it. He has done it with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic and, more recently, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.

"Elijah" is a magnificent accomplishment. Mendelssohn has suffused it with superb melodies, magnificent arias, choruses, and quartets. The orchestral writing is fervent and dramatic, the choral writing expressive of the specific mood the words convey. And those arias are equivalent in impact to any of the Bach passion arias.

The composer specifically noted that this was no epic oratorio, but rather a dramatic one. And in the first half especially, where Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal with the fire from Heaven, drama is in the forefront. Part 2 is more contemplative -- Elijah is forced into the wilderness, where he is tried by the Lord and, after being proved true, is swept into heaven in a fiery chariot.

"Elijah" is well over two hours, plus intermission, yet a good performance makes one barely aware of time passing by. In Boston, there were several aspects of the performance that would be hard to improve upon. First and foremost was Mr. Milnes's Elijah. There is something so deeply satisfying about hearing a performance of such stature, of such sensitivity, of such strength of declamation, wedded to that imposing rich baritone voice and vital presence. His projection was also the clearest of anyone's on stage.

He was nearly equaled by the exceptional Tanglewood Festival Chorus. John Oliver's group is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season. It is hard to imagine what BSO concerts might have been like without the group, for now the standard of preparation and enthusiasm is so high. The Boston Boy Choir performed commendably.

The BSO was in fine form, as it has been just about all season long. From Mr. Ozawa, it was a performance more pointed, attentive to both nuance and the general sense of the music than his handling of the Dvorak "Stabat Mater" earlier in the season. And though one could be grateful he avoided operatic overtones, one could have asked for a firmer specific dramatic projection of Mendelssohn's vividly descriptive music.

The soloists, though strong on paper, were not entirely up to expectations. Elly Ameling's light soprano sounded overtaxed here, undermining many of her subtle musical points. Gwendolyn Killebrew's dusky mezzo has taken on an edge since last heard here (substituting for Fredrica von Stade in Berlioz's "Beatrice et Benedict") that didn't help her in creating the needed mood. And Neil Shicoff tended to sing too loudly rather than give any insight into the texts he was supposed to be communicating.

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