The Berliner Philharmoniker performed Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah very regularly during the first 40 years of its existence. Now, in this concert, Kirill Petrenko is the first Philharmoniker chief conductor ever to present the work – a landmark event in the orchestra’s history.
Few oratorios have such a perfect balance of dramatic scenes and lyrical moments of calm in the form of magnificent arias and ensembles as Elijah. With the subject matter from the Old Testament – the text consists almost exclusively of biblical quotations – Mendelssohn, who was baptised as a Christian in childhood, also made reference to his family’s Jewish roots. The first part describes the prophet’s struggle against the pagan cult of Baal and his plea, finally answered by God, to end a time of drought. The second part follows Elijah through despair and resignation before he is redeemed and ascends to heaven.
The work was a triumphant success at its premiere in Birmingham in August 1846 and again, in a revised version, in London the following year. Mendelssohn, who died in 1847 at the age of 38, did not live to see a German-language performance of Elijah.
Christian Gerhaher, whose many years of collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker range from the Bach Passions to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, takes on the psychologically complex title character. Elsa Dreisig, the soprano in the performance, already won over audiences when she appeared with the orchestra in the 2017/18 season as a stand-in in Haydn’s Creation.