Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Ardingly Choral Society and Mid Sussex Sinfonia, review

From left: Lawrence Olsworth-Peter (tenor), Sally Harrison (soprano), Robert Hammersley (conductor), George Rhodes (treble), Jane Haughton (alto) and Mike Christie (bass). Picture by Melvyn Walmsley
From left: Lawrence Olsworth-Peter (tenor), Sally Harrison (soprano), Robert Hammersley (conductor), George Rhodes (treble), Jane Haughton (alto) and Mike Christie (bass). Picture by Melvyn Walmsley

Ardingly College Chapel, Sunday, April 7

Bernard Shaw dismissed Mendelssohn’s masterpiece Elijah as the substitution of ‘exquisite prettiness’ for ‘true religious sentiment’. He missed its longevity ‘X factor’.

Conductor Robert Hammersley calls this “choruses and arias of immense dramatic power with subsequent movements of extreme gentleness and beauty”. In the College Chapel, this moving performance by Ardingly Choral Society and Mid Sussex Sinfonia (led by Martin Palmer) captured those contrasts.

The well balanced orchestral forces blended well with the chorus, who had sublime passages of awe and gentle reassurance, typified, respectively, by ‘The fire descends from heaven’ and ‘He that shall endure’. The orchestra and chorus’s clarity and empathy provided a harmonious backdrop to five exceptional vocal soloists – interspersed with some closer collaborations, such as Elijah (Mike Christie, bass) and cello soloist Ethan Merrick echoing each other in ‘Man of God’, or the female quartet set among the chorus in ‘Holy, holy, holy’.

George Rhodes (ten), with remarkable confidence and presence, virtually stole the show when, as the Youth, he spotted a cloud that ended a drought. This confirmed Elijah’s authenticity as Jehovah’s prophet as clearly as when Baal failed to deliver fire from heaven. Soon George may emulate such dynamic, dramatically apt contributions as Mike Christie’s, matching Bryn Terfel’s past mastery of Elijah’s boldness and occasional self doubt, or tenor Lawrence Olsworth-Peter’s deceptively easy command of narrative recitative.

Jenni Lind, for whom the part was written, can scarcely have outshone soprano Sally Harrison’s combined confidence and humility as intercessor, nor her vocal range and effortless power. Jane Haughton (alto), reminding us of her acclaimed role here as the Angel in Elgar’s ‘Gerontius’, gently overcame Elijah’s wavering faith as tellingly as she had, as Jezebel, witheringly scorned his prophetic CV.

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