July 2013: Elijah

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 6 July 2013

Source: Stephen Bell


Exeter Festival Chorus marked its 20th anniversary last Saturday evening with a memorable performance of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio Elijah in the cathedral. Singers invited from associated choirs in Rennes and Hanau swelled their numbers to 120 voices, so it was entirely appropriate that the final chorus in each half was sung in the original German. The excellent staging in the cathedral helped them give impact and power to the performance, right from the opening “Help, Lord!”, balancing the sonority and skill of the The Sinfonietta, led by Richard Studt. The ‘cello solo in “It is enough” was the finest I have ever heard in a live performance and the brass and timpani were commendably restrained in the big cathedral acoustic.

Elijah is an intensely dramatic, quasi-operatic work and the soloists played their parts convincingly. Benedict Nelson was an eloquent, forceful yet sensitive Elijah, though lacking the weight of voice that a bass-baritone would have given the role. Soprano Mary Plazas and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin warmed to their roles as the evening progressed and tenor Nathan Vale was outstanding in his persuasive communication of the drama. As the Youth, cathedral chorister Dmitry Barker-Privalov sang with great assurance in front of the large audience. (I know what it takes – I sang it myself aged 10.)

Elijahis a long work, but the inherent drama and tension were handled expertly by conductor Nigel Perrin, and with cuts towards the end some of the usual criticism of the work’s length was avoided. He inspired the combined choirs to great effect, with incisive tenors and basses, especially in the “Baal!” choruses, and clear beauty of tone in the upper voices, notably in “For he shall give his angels”.  His thorough preparation of the score enabled the visitors to blend seamlessly with EFC.

My only area of criticism lies in the orchestral accompaniments to the Recitatives, which were untidy on a number of occasions. This was unexpected, given the experience of conductor and orchestra.

All in all it was a very memorable evening. One could hear members of the audience humming the tunes afterwards, a tribute to the composer’s melodic gifts. The choice of Elijah was inspired and the Festival Chorus deserves sincere congratulations on celebrating their anniversary in fine style.