The sacred oratorio was one of the sturdiest genres in all of music for about two centuries, with exalted contributions by Bach, Handel, Telemann, Haydn and Beethoven. After Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul” and “Elijah,” however, which uneasily balanced baroque pieties with romantic blood and thunder, the oratorio all but vanished, with only a handful of any consequence since.
But “Elijah,” Mendelssohn’s last large-scale work, remains a beloved staple of the repertory, in steady rotation with all the local choirs. Thus, I was astonished to see that Thursday night’s performance by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center was the first in the orchestra’s history. Its grandiosities and occasional banalities require a sure and disciplined hand to keep the proceedings moving, the balances clear and the drama uppermost. This, it did not quite get.
Helmuth Rilling, a well-known Bach hierophant nearing 80, led the NSO, the University of Maryland Concert Choir and four excellent soloists with affection and familiarity (the entire thing by memory) but little in the way of detail or musical shaping. Rilling holds his baton like a spoon (or a gamba bow) and scoops out the music in parsimonious gestures, his left hand often simply dangling by his side.
There was little in the way of rhythmic snap or dynamic nuance; note-endings were random from instrument to instrument, and I saw no effort all night to suppress the brass and timpani when they covered the strings. All of this was reflected in uninvolved playing, as the musicians focused on the unfamiliar music in front of them rather than a give-and-take with the podium. Contrapuntal passages were sloppy right from the overture, and many lovely details (again, mostly in the strings) went for naught.
The real spark in the performance came mainly from the choir. Director Edward Maclary had his youthful charges loaded for bear, and their fervent enthusiasm more than made up for some unsophisticated singing. It was charming to see them all pulsating rhythmically to the music, and the slashing fury of “Baal erhore uns!” and “Wehe ihm,” for just two examples, woke the place up.
The soloists, all making their NSO debuts, were well matched and strong. Marlis Petersen (soprano), Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano) and Bruce Sledge (tenor) sang with clarity and elegance. “Elijah” is the baritone’s show, though, and special honors go to Russell Braun, in the title role, who worked hard all night. His voice is perhaps a shade lighter than one might want from a biblical prophet, but he had all the notes, never barked and drew out each emotion with taste and skill. “Es ist genug!,” with Braun duetting with principal cellist David Hardy, was wonderfully anguished. When the four soloists joined for the quartet of angels in the First Part, each artist subsumed his/her color to the ensemble for a truly seraphic blend.
The program will be repeated Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.
Battey is a freelance writer.