Here is my Monday March 14 suntimes.com and Chicago Sun-Times review of the Friday March 11, 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah with guest conductor Helmuth Rilling.
CSO presents beautiful pairing of chorus, leader in ‘Elijah’
By ANDREW PATNER
It’s a shame that the rare opportunity to hear the multiple-Grammy-winning Chicago Symphony Chorus and the major German choral specialist Helmuth Rilling present Felix Mendelssohn’s 1845-47 oratorio Elijah (on Words of the Old Testament) happened but once this weekend. For this was another of those one-of-a-kind evenings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. As it’s been 30 years since the CSO’s other presentation of this landmark in both German composition and British musical life, it’s doubtful that a performance at this level will be coming around again any time soon.
A partnership with the American Choral Directors Association, which held its annual national conference in Chicago last week, meant that the two-hour-plus Elijah could happen at all. It also meant that two of three performances were for the conference folk, who also appeared to make up a significant part of the full house at Friday’s public concert.
Just about any present or former chorister, whether child or adult, knows the high-voice angels’ trio “Lift thine eyes” and its full choir companion “He, watching over Israel,” from the second of the work’s two parts. And the great Paul Robeson made Elijah’s Part 1 aria “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” a worldwide hit both in solo recitals and stadium concerts in the 1940s. The Part 2 counterpart for the prophet is a terrific baritone aria in both English, “It is enough!”, and German, “Es ist genug!” But to hear only excerpts, as beautiful as they are, is to miss the 37-year-old composer’s dramatic, structural, and operatic achievements.
In significant recordings in 1981 and 1995 as well as concerts around the world, the Stuttgart-based Rilling, 77, has played an important role in dusting off many 19th and early-20th century accretions from the work and connecting it back to the Bach and Handel masterworks that were always lodestars for the young Leipzig composer and music revivalist.
I would not want to be an instrumentalist under Rilling’s direction. He shows no clear beat and, like many choral conductors, appears to have his own eccentric code for indicating just about anything to the performers. But as with many a choirmaster he coaxes some pretty magical things out of his singers, prepared by CSO chorus director and new Grammy winner Duain Wolfe. And the CSO players (reduced to 38 strings) were shrewd and determined enough to make their part of the bargain work. Kudos to principal cello John Sharp for his beautiful solo.
Vocal soloists — including American soprano Alexandra Coku, German mezzo Birgit Remmert, and American tenor James Taylor — were committed and at times touching. But making his U.S. début German baritone Markus Eiche in the title role was the discovery here. Never overdoing anything, he found the right theatricality in this prophet in perpetual combat with his people. Boy soprano Henry Griffin was a total pro as he watched for the rain from the choir terrace.
I mentioned the two languages. Rilling offers the work in German (in which it should be called Elias) despite its commission and première in Birmingham, England, and its decades of prime place in Britain. There’s no “right” answer here, but for me this is a case where singing in the language of the audience really is most effective.