Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” with Seiji Ozawa, Matthias Goerne and Annette Dasch

17 May 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Seiji Ozawa

  • Felix Mendelssohn
    Elijah, oratorio, op. 70 (131 min.)

    Annette Dasch Soprano, Gal James Soprano, Nathalie Stutzmann Contralto, Nadine Weissmann Contralto, Paul O’Neill Tenor, Anthony Dean Griffey Tenor, Matthias Goerne Baritone, Fernando Javier Radó Bass, Viktor Rud Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

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    Seiji Ozawa in conversation with Fergus McWilliam (17 min.)

Almost no other Romantic composer contributed as much to the rediscovery of Bach’s and Handel’s music as Felix Mendelssohn. He also drew on the Baroque masters in his own works, which is particularly obvious in his great oratorios St Paul and Elijah. The latter, which was presented for the first time in English in Birmingham in 1846, conducted by the composer, unexpectedly became a legacy of sorts, since Mendelssohn died shortly afterwards and did not live to witness the first German performances of the work.

It is also in a spiritual sense a last word of the composer; the Old Testament subject matter allowed him to affirm both his Jewish roots and his adopted Christianity, since the arrangement of the text makes it clear that the prophecies of the coming Messiah refer to Jesus. The oratorio is one of Mendelssohn’s most fascinating works; a wealth of melodic inspirations and dramatic excitement are wonderfully combined. Contrary to the prevailing opinion of Mendelssohn’s works as primarily elegant and lovely music, the oratorio reveals the gruff, uncompromising and resigned character of the prophet.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the work under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, who has been one of the orchestra’s regular guest conductors since Herbert von Karajan’s day and was named an honorary member of the Philharmoniker in April 2016. Ozawa is particularly fond of Elijah and conducted one of its rare performances by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1984. At this concert, the ensemble of distinguished soloists was led by Matthias Goerne in the title role, who as a lieder singer is one of the most outstanding interpreters of German music of the Romantic period.

A lone voice crying in the wilderness

Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah

Wednesday 26 August 1846 was a red-letter day in the history not only of the city of Birmingham but of the oratorio in general: at half past eleven in the morning Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy raised his baton in the city’s Town Hall and launched into the first performance of his oratorio Elijah. The work was performed in English by a chorus of 271, a mixed team of German and British soloists and the Birmingham Festival Orchestra. Mendelssohn had written the work in German, but the commission had come from Joseph Moore, who ran the Birmingham Festival, so Mendelssohn invited the musician, painter and chemist William Bartholomew to prepare an English translation.

In the wake of the first performance, the notoriously self-critical composer set about revising the score, an obligatory exercise that in the present case proved particularly drastic. Mendelssohn cut entire numbers and added new ones, while some scenes were made tauter and others expanded. In its definitive version, the work was introduced to London audiences on 16 April 1847. Meanwhile the score was published by Simrock in Bonn and by Simrock’s colleagues in London, Ewer & Co. No one at this time could have foreseen that within six months the work would prove to be the composer’s requiem. He was due to conduct it for the first time in German in Vienna on 14 November but he died ten days earlier, and the performance was given instead in his memory, as were countless others in England and Germany.

Jewish roots

There is no doubt that with Elijah Mendelssohn bequeathed to posterity his chief artistic legacy. He identified completely with the character of the prophet, seeing in Elijah one of the central figures from his own family’s Jewish traditions. The Jewish faith associates the Passover seder with the idea of a fifth cup intended for the prophet Elijah. Unlike the other four cups, which are emptied together and which recall the exodus from Egypt, the Jews’ rescue by the Lord, their redemption and finally their salvation, the fifth cup remains untouched but is placed on the ceremonial table for Elijah. According to Shalom Ben-Chorin, “the prophet Elijah is awaited as the herald of the Messiah who reconciles the hearts of the fathers with those of the children before the Day of Judgement dawns”. This is how these events are described by the prophet Malachi, and it was with these verses that Mendelssohn chose to invoke the eschatological import of Elijah in visionary music towards the end of the score. As a Christian believer, Mendelssohn, it is true, went beyond this traditionally Jewish view in his two final choruses, interpreting his eponymous hero as the prophet of the Christian Messiah, but his family’s Jewish traditions lay at the roots of the profound fascination that the figure of the prophet exercised over him.

A “prophetic” oratorio

Mendelssohn wanted to treat the Old Testament subject matter in a very particular way: “Not historical but prophetic – if I may be allowed to express myself in this way – within a wider context.” “For every member of the congregation” the Biblical story should be “an equally important object close to his or her heart”, from which point of view it would be best, he felt, “to use nothing but passages from the Bible” for the libretto. It is these features that characterize Elijah, the libretto of which was finally compiled by the composer himself from passages drawn from the Bible. In recounting the Biblical narrative, he adopted an approach which, far from being “historical”, was “prophetic”, placing the Biblical events “within a wider context”. True, the story unfolds in the form of a dramatic narrative through Elijah’s confrontations with King Ahab and the Queen and with the Widow and the People, but the result is not a self-contained succession of scenes. Elijah has no plot but consists of a series of images, Mendelssohn’s concern being to create “a truly visual world, just like the one that is to be found in every chapter of the Old Testament”.

Adaptation and reworking of the Biblical source

In adopting this approach, Mendelssohn drew on Chapters 17–19 of the First Book of Kings, adapting them in the most efficient way imaginable. From Chapter 17 he took the prophet’s curse and the great drought and the scenes with Elijah by the brook Cherith and with the widow in Zarephath. The following chapter begins with Elijah’s return to show himself to the people “in the third year”, a scene that opens the second half of Part One in Mendelssohn’s adaptation. There follows his challenge to the prophets of Baal, his ordeal by fire on Mount Carmel and the “great rain”. Mendelssohn further underscored this structure by taking up the motifs associated with the prophet’s curse at the beginning of the oratorio and repeating them in the major. Chapter 19 provides the subject matter for Part Two: the threat by the people to murder Elijah after they have been stirred up by Queen Jezebel, his flight into the wilderness, his despair in God and the appearance of the Lord on Mount Horeb. The rest of the action, with the overthrow of King Ahab and Elijah’s ascension to heaven, was necessarily condensed as these events extend over several chapters of the Bible and involve younger prophets summoned by Elijah.

The figure of the prophet

Mendelssohn’s vision revolves around the figure of a prophet torn by doubt and subject to outbursts of anger. “In the case of Elijah I had imagined a real prophet through and through, such as we could use again today, powerful, zealous, but also angry, wrathful and sombre, in contrast to the rabble at court and among the populace and in contrast, too, to practically the whole world and yet borne on the wings of angels.” For Mendelssohn, Elijah was a contemporary figure, an anti-courtly “lone voice crying in the wilderness”, a person both difficult and yet filled with doubt and despair. In Part Two he grows resigned when he fails to convert humankind to God. Here, too, we sense the composer’s despair at an increasingly secularized world that has lost its ability to relate to God and to an art characterized by moderation. Mendelssohn and Elijah merge together as a single figure in the great aria “Es ist genug” (It is enough).

A note on the music

The musical design of this aria has often invited comparison with Bach, writers frequently claiming that Mendelssohn drew his inspiration from the aria “Es ist vollbracht” in the St John Passion. In fact, Mendelssohn recast Bach’s musical idiom here and made it uniquely his own, producing a melody which, redolent of lamentation, ineluctably recalls the opening of the composer’s own “Scottish” Symphony. The same is true of his borrowings from the choral writing in Handel’s oratorios. His great choruses are made up of vast blocks of sound as well as fugues and agitated concitato passages in the Handelian manner, and yet every theme is distinctively Mendelssohnian in terms of its character and of a style that is often reminiscent of the Age of Sensibility. With its fluid transitions and agglomeration of choral and orchestral masses he goes far beyond Handel, none of whose oratorios opens with a passage that can match the overwhelming power of Elijah’s opening bars. The idea of placing the curse at the very beginning of the work, its thrice-repeated tritone functioning as a leitmotif, in itself creates a highly Romantic impression. The manner in which the overture takes up and exponentially develops this sombre mood, before the tension is released in the opening chorus, is altogether magnificent, creating an impact greater than that of any other opening passage in the whole history of the oratorio. The writer on music, Heinrich Eduard Jacob, was right to insist on the fact that in Elijah Mendelssohn was more of a composer of the future than one who “loves the dead too much”, to repeat Berlioz’s reproach of him: “Elijah far more than St Paul anticipates the future, the victory of the art of expression. Elijah is elemental music. It is not especially enlightening here, any more than in the cases of Die erste Walpurgisnacht, the ‘Hebrides’ Overture or the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, to describe Mendelssohn’s achievement in terms of some such convenient slogan as Romantic Classicism or to say that Mendelssohn found a creative intermediary position between Classicism and Romanticism.”

Karl Böhmer

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Seiji Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China, in 1935 and studied conducting and composition in Tokyo. The winner of several international competitions and the holder of many major scholarships, he attended Herbert von Karajan’s masterclasses in Berlin before becoming Leonard Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic during the 1961/62 season. He began his international career in North America as principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965–69) and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1970–76). His major successes at the Tanglewood Festival led to his appointment as the Festival’s artistic director in 1970. In 1984 he founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra and since then had done much to promote the orchestra’s work, performing a similar function for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto since 1991. After almost three decades as artistic director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1973, Seiji Ozawa became music director of the Vienna State Opera from the start of the 2002/03 season. In 2004 he formed the International Music Academy in Switzerland with the aim of helping young musicians to develop as chamber recitalists and to give concerts. Among his numerous awards are his appointment as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2001 and honorary doctorates at Harvard University (2000) and the Sorbonne (2004). He is much in demand as a guest conductor with leading orchestras all over the world. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut in 1966 and has returned on frequent subsequent occasions, most recently in mid-January 2009, when he conducted works by Mendelssohn and Bruckner.

Annette Dasch was born in Berlin and studied at various colleges, including the Academy for Music and Theatre in Munich. She continues to be taught by her former teacher there, Josef Loibl. Having won singing competitions in Barcelona and Geneva, she was launched on her international career in 2000 and since then has appeared at the Munich, Berlin and Dresden State Operas and at leading houses in Paris, Brussels, Tokyo and elsewhere. She has also performed at the Salzburg Easter Festival, the Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna Festivals and the Graz Styriarte. She has worked with conductors of the eminence of Seiji Ozawa, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Simon Rattle and René Jacobs in a repertory embracing works by Haydn, Mozart, Offenbach, Johann Strauß, Wagner, Puccini and Humperdinck. Annette Dasch has given lieder recitals at the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg and in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, London and Naples. Since the start of 2008 she has invited fellow artists and audiences to Radialsystem V for her “salon” on selected Sundays at four, when she acts as both presenter and hostess. Annette Dasch made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold under Sir Simon Rattle at the 2007 Salzburg Easter Festival. Her most recent appearances, also under Sir Simon Rattle, were in the title role of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri in early February 2009.

Matthias Goerne was born in Weimar and studied with Hans-Joachim Beyer in Berlin and also with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He has been enthusiastically acclaimed by audiences all over the world not only as an opera singer but also on the concert platform and as a lieder recitalist. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He first appeared as Papageno under Christoph von Dohnányi at the 1997 Salzburg Festival. The range of his carefully chosen repertory extends from Papageno to Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the title roles in Berg’s Wozzeck and Reimann’s Lear. Among his lieder accompanists are the pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Christoph Eschenbach and Eric Schneider. An honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London, Matthias Goerne has appeared on frequent occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker since making his debut in 1998, most recently in mid-February 2009, when he performed Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone op. 33 with Andreas Haefliger (piano) and Ulrich Matthes (narrator) in the Chamber Music Hall within the framework of the series of recitals “Liedkunst – Kunstlied”.

Anthony Dean Griffey was born in the United States and studied at Wingate University, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He also took part in the Young Artist Development Program of the Metropolitan Opera, making his debut with the company in Wagner’s Parsifal in 1995. Since then he has appeared at the Met on numerous occasions, not least in the title role in Britten’s Peter Grimes, a role he has sung to great acclaim all over the world. Anthony Dean Griffey is equally at home in the opera house and concert hall in a repertory that runs the whole stylistic gamut from Handel’s Messiah and the large-scale works of the Classical and Romantic eras to more rarely performed pieces such as Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie, Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and two contemporary operas, Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Previn also dedicated a song cycle to the tenor, accompanying him at the piano at its first performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2004. Among the conductors with whom Anthony Dean Griffey has worked are Sir Colin Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Donald Runnicles, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Mariss Jansons. Among guest appearances in Germany have been concerts with the Munich Philharmonic under the direction of James Levine. Anthony Dean Griffey is making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Gal James studied the cello at the High School of the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem before training as a mezzo-soprano at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, where her teachers included Mira Zakai. During this period she also appeared as a soloist with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Augusta Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and took part in a number of festivals in her native Israel. Among her operatic appearances at this date in her career were the Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte. Gal James then retrained as a soprano, taking part in masterclasses with Katia Ricciarelli and Marjana Lipovšek, among others, and winning prizes in many prestigious singing competitions. She is now a member of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, where her roles have included Javotte in Massenet’s Werther under Daniel Barenboim. Recent engagements have included Haydn’s Die Schöpfung with the Leipzig Chamber Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus in Berlin and Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra. Among her awards is the Silverman Prize of the International Vocal Arts Institute of New York. Gal James is making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Paul O’Neill was born in Melbourne and studied singing at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, taking part in the Young Artist Programme of West Australian Opera in Perth in 2004 and 2005. Among the roles that he has undertaken for this last-named company are Gastone in La traviata, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte and Flavio in Norma. Other roles in Paul O’Neill’s repertory include the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Bruno in I puritani and the Shepherd and Young Sailor in Tristan und Isolde. He has also sung solo tenor roles in concerts and opera productions in the Chorus of West Australian Opera. He has won prizes and scholarships at a number of prestigious international singing competitions. In 2006, for example, a bursary from the opera foundation Australia’s Covent Garden enabled him to continue his vocal studies at the National Opera Studio in London, after which he became a member of the Cardiff International Academy of Voice. He joined the Opera Studio of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in November 2007. Paul O’Neill made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-March 2009 when he took part in concert performances of Haydn’s opera Orlando Paladino under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Fernando Javier Radó was born in Argentina and studied at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, initially in the children’s chorus and later as a student at the Instituto Superior de Arte that is attached to the main company. He also sang in the opera chorus as its youngest member. In 2007 he made his role debuts as Sparafucile in Rigoletto, the Armchair and Tree in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, the Bonze in Madama Butterfly and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. That same year he was awarded the “Revelación 2007” Prize by the Association of Argentine Music Critics and in October 2007 won second prize in the New Voices International Singing Competition. Since January 2008 he has been a member of the Opera Studio of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, where he holds a scholarship from the Lìz Mohn Culture and Music Foundation. Here Fernando Javier Radó has been heard in a wide-ranging repertory that has included works by Mozart, Puccini, Peter Ruzicka, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Wagner, often under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. Fernando Javier Radó is representing Argentina at this year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. This is his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Viktor Rud hails from the Ukraine and studied at the Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in Kiev before moving to London and continuing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and the National Opera Studio. He has also attended masterclasses by Marilyn Horne, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Thomas Allen and Sergei Leiferkus and the Académie Européenne in Aix-en-Provence. The winner of numerous prestigious competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in London, Viktor Rud has been a member of the Opera Studio of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 2007. His repertory includes the title roles in Don Giovanni and Eugen Onegin and roles in other stage works by Mozart, Leoncavallo, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nino Rota, Judith Weir and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. He has sung the role of Mr Astley in Prokofiev’s The Gambler at the Lindenoper and at La Scala, Milan, in both cases under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. For the Leipzig Opera he has also sung Schaunard in Puccini’s La Bohème. Viktor Rud is a frequent visitor to the world’s concert halls and recording studios and has broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and returned repeatedly to the Berkshire Choral Festival in the United States. This is his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Nathalie Stutzmann was born in Paris. She first studied singing with her mother and continued at the Ecole d’Art Lyrique de l’Opéra de Paris where she studied German lieder with Hans Hotter. She is also an accomplished pianist and bassoonist. Her broad repertoire covers works of all periods, from the baroque up to music of the 20th century. Nathalie Stutzmann is particularly renowned for her interpretations of German lied and French melody, but is equally working with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Seiji Ozawa, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle and Christoph von Dohnányi. As concert soloist Nathalie Stutzman has performed with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston and Cleveland Symphony Orchestras, Staatskapelle Dresden and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The holder of the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, she gives regular masterclasses throughout the world. Nathalie Stutzmann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2007 in Claude Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Nadine Weissmann was born in Berlin and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where her teachers included Virginia Zeani. She also attended masterclasses with Brigitte Fassbaender, Marjana Lipovšek and others. Even while still a student, she was already appearing in operas and concerts. From 2000 onwards she made a name for herself in Berlin and elsewhere, performing new works, giving lieder recitals and appearing as a soloist within the framework of chamber concerts with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. The recipient of many awards, including a first prize in the Schloss Rheinsberg Chamber Opera Competition, Nadine Weissmann was a member of the Städtische Bühnen in Osnabrück from March 2002 to July 2004. Since then she has appeared in leading opera houses and concert halls not only in Germany – most notably the National Theatre in Weimar – but also at international centres and festivals such as Lisbon, Monte Carlo, Glyndebourne, New York and Seattle in a wide-ranging repertory that extends from Mozart and Beethoven to Bizet, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Hindemith and Bernstein. Nadine Weissmann is increasingly associated with Wagnerian roles and during the present season appeared in her first complete Ring in Weimar, where she sang Erda in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Schwertleite in Die Walküre and the Second Norn and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. This is Nadine Weissmann’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, is the oldest radio choir in Germany. Famous German conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber conducted concerts and radio broadcasts with the choir during the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, principal conductor Helmut Koch established its reputation as a Handel specialist on tours which took it through most countries of Europe. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) developed the tradition of performing premieres of contemporary music; Robin Gritton took over the leadership in 1994. Since 2001 Simon Halsey has infected the Rundfunkchor with his enthusiasm and vitality. Made up of 64 full-time professional singers, the choir appears in approx. 50 concerts worldwide each season. An impeccable and meaningful declamation of the text in any language required is the basis and starting-point for the choir’s work. It has built particularly close relationships with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Its high standard, wide-ranging repertoire and versatility are borne out by long list of award-winning CD releases. The recording of Stravinsky’s Psalm Symphony under Sir Simon Rattle received the 2009 Grammy Award for the best choral recording. Under Halsey’s direction, the choir also initiated a number of new projects: specific youth programmes, traineeships for selected young professional singers and a sing-along concert once a year. With its series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music the Rundfunkchor Berlin explores a dialogue with other art forms in innovative and scenic projects.

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