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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Elias (Elijah) (Ziesak, Mahnke, Genz, Lukas, Leipzig MDR Symphony and Chorus, Markl)
Mendelssohn’s magnificent oratorio Elijah brings to life the tumultuous times and personal drama of the Biblical prophet in a sweeping series of recitatives, arias and choruses in which the composer’s Romantic genius drew deeply from the wellsprings of Bach and Handel. In this new recording, sung in German, Jun Märkl, one of the most notable conductors of his generation, leads an outstanding cast of soloists headed by Ralf Lukas, and Germany’s longest-standing radio symphony orchestra and its acclaimed choir.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Elias, Op. 70
Elias, Prophet (Elijah, The Prophet) – Ralf Lukas, Bass
Obadiah, sein Gefährte (Obadiah, his companion) – Christoph Genz, Tenor
Der König Ahab (Ahab, King of Israel) – Christoph Genz, Tenor
Die Königin Jezebel (Queen Jezebel) – Claudia Mahnke, Mezzo-soprano
Die Witwe (The Widow) – Ruth Ziesak, Soprano
Ein Knabe (A Boy) – Luise Müller, Treble
Ein Engel (An Angel) – Claudia Mahnke, Mezzo-soprano
Chor der Engel, Propheten Baals, Das Volk
(Chorus of Angels, Prophets of Baal, The People) – MDR Radio Choir
MDR Symphony Orchestra • Jun Märkl
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine’s cynical ticket of admission to European culture, but for Mendelssohn a step later to be welcomed, seeing Christianity as a development of Judaism, a logical progress. Mendelssohn was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections. Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a composer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy’s musical abilities and interests.
Mendelssohn’s early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
The first of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, St Paul, had had its first performance in Düsseldorf in 1836. It was ten years before he turned again to the form, now choosing a subject drawn from the Old Testament. The work was the result of a commission from the Committee of the Birmingham Festival, who invited Mendelssohn to direct the festival in 1846 and compose for it a new work. Mendelssohn refused to undertake the direction of the festival, but agreed to compose a work for the occasion. The prophet Elijah had been a subject that he had considered for a number of years and planned with his friend Karl Klingemann in the late 1830s. It was only in 1844 that he seems to have started thinking of the work again, but it was not until the invitation from Birmingham the following year that he began the task of composition, with a text compiled from the first Book of Kings by Julius Schubring, a friend for many years and at this time a Pastor in Dessau, a man who remained grateful for the kindness and hospitality shown him by the Mendelssohns during his student days in Berlin. Mendelssohn rightly rejected the unduly overt Christian interpretation of the text proposed by Schubring, who had suggested that the figures of Elijah, Moses and Christ should appear, as at the account of the Transfiguration, an event that Mendelssohn perhaps intended for a new oratorio, Christus, that remained unfinished at his death. For its first performance an English version was prepared by William Bartholomew, who had performed the same service for other vocal works by Mendelssohn. The first performance took place in Birmingham on 26 August 1846, when eight numbers were encored. Mendelssohn made various revisions to the work, which was heard in London on 16 April 1847, in the course of a busy and exhausting visit to England, and given three further performances, the second of the four in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, allowing the latter to pay his tribute in a note added to his programme book and sent to Mendelssohn. It was first heard in Germany in Hamburg in October, but by the time of its performance in Vienna on 14 November Mendelssohn was dead.
The oratorio starts with an Introduction, Elijah’s prophecy that there shall be neither rain nor dew, the German text following Luther’s translation, reflected in the English version by the words of the Authorised Version of the Bible. The fugal Overture that follows was written at the suggestion of Bartholomew and has echoes of Elijah’s final words. The chorus call on the Lord for help, with the harvest now failed and drought, the rivers dry and no bread for the children. In a duet for two sopranos, with the chorus, the people call for help in their tribulation. In a tenor recitative Obadiah, the governor of the house of King Ahab and a man who had protected the prophets of the Lord from the persecution initiated by Queen Jezebel, calls on the people to repent and return to the Lord. In the following chorus the people find no comfort, the music leading from its initial agitation to a chorale-like setting of Denn ich der Herr, dein Gott, ich bin ein eifriger Gott (For He the Lord our God, He is a jealous God), the change of persons in the English words following the version of William Bartholomew, rather than that of the Fifth Commandment. In a recitative an angel bids Elijah take refuge by the brook Cherith, where he may drink the waters and be fed, morning and evening, by ravens. The following double quartet sets the words of a Psalm as quoted by St Luke in his account of the temptation of Christ, one of many implied Christian references in the text of the oratorio. The angel, in a recitative, appears, bidding Elijah leave the brook, now dried up, and go to Zarephath and there seek out a widow, in whose house he will find shelter, with food from her inexhaustible barrel of meal and oil from her cruse that shall not fail. There follows, in music that so often echoes Bach, an aria for the widow, an abbreviation of the biblical narrative, bringing her reproach for the mortal illness of her son. Elijah is now heard again, for the first time since the introduction, praying for her son’s life, with the ultimate miracle, followed by a chorus, Wohl dem der den Herrn fürchtet (Blessed are the men who fear him).
In a reflection of his first recitative Elijah declares his resolve to meet Ahab, after three years during which he has taken refuge from the King. Ahab, a tenor, and his people accuse Elijah of troubling Israel, but Elijah denies the charge, attributing the tribulations of Israel, in the biblical account a drought throughout Samaria, to their worship of Baal. He proposes a trial with the prophets of Baal to see whether Baal or Jehovah is able to provide fire for a burnt offering. He bids the prophets of Baal call upon their god, while he alone remains as a prophet of the Lord. In the following chorus the prophets of Baal call on their god, but to no avail. Elijah, mocking them, bids them call their god louder, and this they do, with increased urgency. Again Elijah bids them call louder, cutting themselves with knives and leaping on the altar, to which there will come no answer, and again the followers of Baal call for an answer from their god, their pleas answered only by silence. In a tranquil Adagio aria Elijah calls on the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, whose servant he is, to show the people that he is the Lord God. The four soloists join in a chorale, Wirf dein Anliegen auf den Herrn (Cast thy burden upon the Lord). Elijah calls once more on the Lord, and fire descends from heaven, received in an excited chorus ending in solemn acceptance of the power of the Lord. Elijah commands the death of all the prophets of Baal, the vengeance of the Lord embodied in his following aria, to which an alto arioso offers a peaceful contrast, an overtly Christian interpolation. Obadiah begs Elijah to help the people, suffering from drought and Elijah sends a boy up to look towards the sea, if rain may be coming. Three times the boy sees nothing, but the fourth time he sees a cloud, like a man’s hand, and soon rain falls, gratefully welcomed by the people, their thankfulness expressed in a cheerful chorus with its own moments of drama, ending Part I of the oratorio.
Part II starts with a soprano aria, Höre, Israel, höre des Herrn Stimme! (Hear ye, Israel, hear what the Lord speaketh). This Adagio leads to a short recitative, So spricht der Herr (Thus saith the Lord), continuing with an Allegro maestoso, now in the major, offering comfort, Ich bin euer Tröster (I am He that comforteth). A chorus tells Elijah not to be afraid, as God is with him. In a recitative Elijah reproaches King Ahab for his worship of Baal and killing of the righteous, whose possessions he has seized. Queen Jezebel, an alto soloist, accuses Elijah of prophesying against Israel and against the King, charges echoed by her people. She threatens Elijah with death, as her prophets of Baal had died before; he has closed the heavens, brought famine and deserves death. The chorus, in Wehe ihm! (Woe to him!) and in a contrapuntal texture, express their fury at Elijah. In a recitative Obadiah counsels flight. In the following Adagio aria, Es ist genug! (It is enough!), with its cello obbligato, Elijah expresses resignation in music that, it has been suggested, closely follows Bach’s Es ist vollbracht in the St John Passion, and with a text that reflects the influence of a sermon by Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher, known to Mendelssohn¹, implying an identification of Elijah with Christ. The aria frames a defiant Molto allegro vivace, before the return of the opening. A short tenor recitative shows us Elijah in the wilderness, sleeping under a juniper tree, and three soloists, two sopranos and an alto, unaccompanied and representing angels, sing words of comfort from Psalm 121, Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen (Lift thine eyes to the mountains). The chorus, with a lilting accompaniment, sings of the watch the Lord keeps over Israel. The angel, an alto, in a recitative, tells Elijah to rise and make his way, over forty days and forty nights, to Horeb, but Elijah begs that the Lord may come and show the wonder of his works, for the people have turned away from him; he wishes now for death. In an Andantino the angel tells him to wait patiently, for the Lord will grant his desire. The following chorus, Wer bis an das Ende beharrt (He that shall endure to the end), suggests a chorale. In a recitative Elijah thirsts for the Lord, and an angel tells him to stand on the mountain before him, his face veiled, as the Lord will appear. The chorus Der Herr ging vorüber! (Behold, God the Lord passed by!) offers the dramatic and musical climax of the oratorio, as the Lord is not seen in a mighty wind, nor in an earthquake nor in a fire, but in a still small voice. Above Him stood the Seraphim, and two soprano and two alto soloists sing Heilig, heilig, heilig ist Gott der Herr (Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord), echoed by the chorus. In a chorus-recitative Elijah is told that seven thousand are still left faithful and that he may return, a command he accepts in Ich gehe hinab in der Kraft des Herrn! (I go on my way in the strength of the Lord), continuing with the comforting arioso, Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen (For the mountains shall depart). The biblical narrative is greatly abbreviated in what follows. An impressive chorus, Und der Prophet Elias brach hervor wie ein Feuer (Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire), going on to tell of the overthrow of kings before a fiery chariot takes him up in a whirlwind to heaven. This is followed immediately by an Andante tenor aria, Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten (Then shall the righteous shine forth), succeeded by a soprano recitative, Darum ward gesendet der Prophet Elias (Behold God hath sent the prophet Elijah), a premonition of the Day of Judgement. The chorus tells of another who shall come and the four soloists call on all that thirst to come to Him. The oratorio ends with a final chorus and a fugue proclaiming the glory of the Lord, capped by a closing Amen.
¹ “Elias, Johann Sebastian Bach und der Neue Bund. Zur Arie Es ist genug in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdys Oratorium Elias”, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Oratoriums seit Händel: Festschrift Günther Massenkeil zum 60. Geburtstag, Bonn, 1986. English version by Susan Gillespie in Mendelssohn and His World, ed. R. Larry Todd, Princeton, 1991.
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MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Elias (Elijah) (Ziesak, Mahnke...