Prince Albert praised Mendelssohn's "Elijah" as true art rising amid the "empty, frivolous sounds" of his day. Although the modern listener may not be quite so carried away, the Paul Hill Chorale's presentation Sunday at the Kennedy Center revealed many splendid moments in the oratorio.
Its text pits good against evil in the best biblical fashion as the prophet Elijah calls down God's vengeance upon the heathen worshipers of Baal. The rousing confrontations evoke vivid dramatic scenes from Mendelssohn. At other times--particularly through much of the first part--he seems long on craft and short on inspiration. There is none of Bach's transcendent mystery. There is, however, imaginative orchestration and a skillfully varied sequence of textures and forms.
The oratorio reaches its expressive center in the second part with Elijah's aria of despair, "It is enough." Baritone J. Patrick Raftery captured its poignancy with the rich sound and fine interpretive shading that made his performance consistently powerful. Soprano Donna Gullstrand projected her passages with solid musicality. Linn Maxwell made a capable mezzo-soprano, apart from her lapse into a near-screech for the queen's anger. Alan Crabb used his pleasing tenor voice with dramatic flair, and sometimes less than secure pitch.
The chorus under Paul Hill's ably paced direction sang with admirable precision, responsiveness and clarity. It contributed many of the afternoon's most expressive moments, particularly with the thrilling contrasts in "Behold! God the Lord passed by!" and the delicate beauty of the angels' chorus, "He, watching over Israel."