REVIEW: A dramatic and demanding oratorio from Burgess Hill Choral Society

Musical director and conductor Michael Stefan Wood
Musical director and conductor Michael Stefan Wood

Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Burgess Hill Choral Society, St Andrew’s Church, Saturday, April 21

The cry of ‘Help Lord’ from the members of Burgess Hill Choral Society heralded the drama that was about to unfold in the performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah given on April 21.

This has become the composer’s most performed oratorio since its first performance at Birmingham in 1846.

Despite its popularity, it continues to offer many challenges to choirs, soloists and instrumentalists as they attempt to unfold the dramatic account of Elijah’s life as described in The Old Testament.

This performance at St Andrew’s Church had assembled soloists capable of meeting the composers demands and an orchestra that could mostly provide effective support throughout the performance.

The singers of Burgess Hill Choral Society provided dramatic impact to the oratorio’s narrative but with an ability to offer a sensitive contribution in quieter section of the work.

The louder fugal sections for chorus were less successful in the acoustic of this church and did occasionally result in lack of unity with the orchestra during faster tempi.

However, this is a demanding work for chorus and the audience could not have failed to be impressed by the rendering of ‘He watches over Israel’, which was the highlight of the evening.

The small orchestra made an effective contribution to the performance.

However, there were times when the woodwind section was too prominent and covered the sensitive singing in some of the solo items.

The soloists had the vocal qualities to do justice to this work; Clare Tunny and Frances Gregory performed their arias effectively with Frances providing the right levels of intense emotion in ‘O rest In the Lord’.

Joel Williams used his impressive tenor voice most effectively throughout the evening. His rendering of ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth’ was beautifully sung and with total adherence to the composer’s intentions revealed in the score.

The role of Elijah presents a huge challenge for baritones. The part demands an ability to deliver the drama in the soloist’s taunts before the ‘Bale Choruses’ and to also embrace the tender and often poignant arias found in later parts of the oratorio.

Keiran Rayner sang the role with a voice well able to deliver the narrative in this work.

It would have been an advantage had a greater range of expression and volume been applied to his singing in the dramatic sections that occur at the heart of this work.

However, his final solo, ‘For the mountains shall depart’ deserves special mention since it was very impressive indeed with expressive, sensitive, singing throughout this difficult number.

As ever, Michael Stefan Wood gave clear direction to all performers in this challenging work.

He should be congratulated for performing these large-scale major works in the choral repertoire with amateur performers in the local community.

On December 8 he will perform works by Karl Jenkins and John Rutter with Burgess Hill Choral Society; a date to note by all music lovers.

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