Cockermouth Harmonic Society

Cockermouth Harmonic Society.  Conductor: Ian Thompson

Mendelssohn: Elijah

It was stormy outside, the high winds contributing to the sense of awe and impending doom with which Julian Tovey, the bass baritone singing Elijah, predicted no rain for the Israelites as punishment for their worship of other gods; thus opened the Harmonic Society’s interpretation of Mendelssohn’s 1846 oratorio, ‘Elijah’, last Saturday night, in All Saints Church.

Ian Hare, the organist, performed the remainder of the overture, the beginning of a heroic evening of excellent playing as the sole instrumental support for the singers.

The choir’s first entrance, ‘Help, Lord!’, was electrifying. The sound was rich and deep and the diction crystal clear. Crucially, for the effectiveness of the storytelling, I could hear every word that was sung throughout the evening. I wouldn’t have needed a program to guide me through the work.

The first movement ended with the beleaguered Israelites realizing ‘the harvest now is over, the summer days are gone, and yet no power cometh to help us.’ Their desolation was palpable.

The following duet between the soprano (Tracie Penwarden) and Contralto (Marion Ramsay) with the choir in support was sublime. Both women are remarkably expressive singers and brought more than just their enviable voices to their roles. Throughout the performance, Ramsay switched between the role of an Angel and that of Jezebel with remarkable ease, bringing light and reverence to the former and a sinister sensuality to the latter. Penwarden was moving as a distraught widow whose son is dying and then lifts her voice in praise to God as he is cured by Elijah.  The tenor soloist, Richard Pollock, was playing Obadiah but also the contrary and ungodly King Ahab. Again, he was convincing and dramatic as both, his voice strong, controlled, but also full of emotion.

During the first part, the choir demonstrated hymn-like reverence as they praised God for Elijah’s healing of the widow’s son, followed by desperate, agitated pleading to Baal to prove his power by sending fire. Throughout the musical changes, the hush followed by the frenzy, the choir maintained control and precision of diction and tuning; their use of dynamics was masterful. During the cutting silence following their last plea to Baal, you could hear a pin drop.

The silence was ended by the majestic Julian Tovey hitting his stride with ‘Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel’, a performance that sent tingles down my spine. I was mesmerised.

As the first part of the performance came to a close with further impressive work from all four soloists and the choir, a little jewel of a voice shone through: that of Robert Henderson, the boy soprano playing the ‘Youth’ who Elijah sends to high ground to watch over the sea for the rain clouds which God eventually sends. His singing was confident and radiant, his beautiful treble lifting the mood and heralding hope for the Israelites as the rain arrives.

Tracie Penwarden’s soaring opening of the second half with the Angel’s ‘Hear ye, Israel’, was enchanting and engaged the audience afresh for the remainder of the story. The short-lived hopefulness gives way to anger and frustration in the second part of the performance as the Israelites return to their infidelity.  Encouraged by Ahab’s queen Jezebel, they once more turn on Elijah and from God, after which Elijah escapes to the wilderness. Richard Pollock as Obadiah singing ‘Man of God’, his duet with Elijah, was sad and earnest, leading Julian Tovey into another beautiful performance in ‘It is enough’ as Elijah calls on God to end his suffering and his life.

A highlight of this half was the sopranos and altos singing a capella for the chorus ‘Lift Thine Eyes, Lift Thine Eyes’. The voices were strong and smooth and beautifully in tune, supporting and complementing each other, filling the recesses of the church.

The performance continued in strength throughout the remainder of the second half, each singer giving everything to the piece. All the sections of the choir were as competent as each other, creating an excellent balance, although special mention should be made of the tenors and basses, who I think are sounding great.  Ian Thompson’s direction has benefited the choir enormously. The relationship between choir and conductor is clearly very successful.  The choir looked very smart and their deportment was professional and neat. One or two more smiles might not have gone amiss, although I know that the demands of live performance sometimes make it difficult to remember to look happy!

By the time the final chorus rang out ‘And then shall your light break forth’, I felt that I had been told a marvellous tale, full of drama and contrast and powerful, inspiring music.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Rachel Mellor


2011 Elijah