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James A. Altena
Fanfare, May 2011

…soprano Ruth Ziesak and mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke…are quite fine…the conducting of Jun Märkl has much to commend it; he has a keen ear for pacing and balance and keeps the drama moving with a minimum of the tedious lacunae that lethally afflicts lesser performances of this choral warhorse. The chorus and orchestra sing and play with vigor and accuracy.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, March 2011

In general it is a fine performance, well paced, with a fine, enthusiastic chorus. The Naxos sound is quite good…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, January 2011

The Music Elijah’s popularity was such that for a while it supplanted even Handel’s Messiah as the most popular of all choral works. At the Birmingham premier, the 2000-strong audience lost all sense of decorum, breaking with the prevailing custom regarding performances of religious works by roaring their approval.

The Performance The solo line-up here is slightly variable, ranging from Christoph Genz’s beguilingly sensitive tenor to the Wagnerian intoning of bass Ralf Lukas. Greater clarity of texture and articulation from the choir and orchestra would also have helped give Mendelssohn’s sparkling textures and added lift, while the two big choruses—Thanks be to God and Be Not Afraid—lack impact. That said, there is a keen sense of the drama unfolding in front of one’s eyes, and unfailingly musical quality to Jun Märkl’s direction that is enormously satisfying.

The Verdict For Mendelssohn’s slightly cosy take on Elijah to break free of its Victorian musical moorings, a greater sense of exultancy and imperativeness is required.

Stephen Eddins, January 2011

German conductor Jun Märkl’s conception of Mendelssohn’s Elijah liberates it from the realm of the “pretty”—a well-mannered favorite of amateur Victorian choral societies—and presents it as a brawny, emotionally volatile, sometimes raw depiction of several very odd episodes from the life of the ninth century BCE Hebrew prophet. It could be argued whether or not the dramatic extremes and the brashness of this version were exactly what the composer had in mind, but it’s undeniably effective and should be of interest to fans of the oratorio. For English-speaking audiences, the fact that it is performed in the original German creates a healthy distance from the English oratorio tradition to which it has often been relegated. Märkl’s Elijah is dramatically charged and is appropriately stark in its grandeur; the climactic choral sections are among the most impressive moments in the recording. As the prophet, bass Ralf Lukas doesn’t have what could be described as a beautiful voice, but he has a commanding grasp of the role’s dramatic range, and he makes a protagonist who is both heroic and convincingly human. Soprano Ruth Ziesak is the most impressive of the soloists, singing with clarion brilliance, but mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke is also very fine. Tenor Christoph Genz is usually effective, but in some of his solos his voice seems too light. The MDR Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra are the real stars here; their vigorous and nuanced singing and playing give the performance the vitality that makes it stand out. Naxos’ sound is full and warm, but sometimes at the expense of clarity and detail in the grander passages.

Gavin Dixon
MusicWeb International, January 2011

Elias is quite a tour de force, at least by Mendelssohn’s standards. Musically it is one of his most diverse works, and he makes the most of every opportunity for choral counterpoint, for elegant vocal solos, for atmospheric scene-setting; the list is almost endless. On the other hand, the composer’s discipline is everywhere apparent, and the finely judged proportions of the work are surely a key to its success. In fact, the oratorio tradition in the 19th century was almost as strong as in the 18th, yet only two works from it survive into the modern repertoire, and both are by Mendelssohn: this and St Paul. To modern ears, the influence of Bach is an interesting dimension. It was written only a few years after Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of the Matthew Passion, and the links between the two works are undeniable, not least in Mendelssohn’s skilfully polyphonic use of the choir.

The work’s continuing popularity, not least with amateurs, belies the difficulties it poses for performers. True, Mendelssohn has a knack for creating the maximum dramatic effect with the minimum of technical difficulty, but he still expects a high standard of musicianship from soloists, orchestra and choir alike. The greatest strength of this recording is that the performers all work to almost uniformly high standards. The MDR Radio Choir display a unity of intent that is all too rare among large, amateur choruses. Perhaps their numbers have been reduced to improve the ensemble, but if so, they still manage to pack a punch when needed.

Among the soloists, the most distinctive is the soprano Ruth Ziesak, who brings a sense of operatic scope to the proceedings. None of the other singers are quite as distinguished as her, but all put in fine performances. Mendelssohn often writes for the soloists as an ensemble, and the minimal vibrato of the other singers allows these movements to cohere elegantly. That said, the timbral contrast between two male soloists, the tenor Christoph Genz and the bass Ralf Lukas, is a real benefit to many of their duet recitatives. Genz has an unaffected purity of tone, while Lukas has a slightly more constricted and impassioned sound. There aren’t many roles where that sort of sound production is appropriate to the bass voice, but the title role of Elijah is surely one of them.

If I have one complaint about the performance it is that it lacks urgency. Jun Märkl shapes the movements well, but the tempos are often too static and the orchestra rarely takes the music to dynamic extremes. There is so much potential drama in this music that is only occasionally realised by this performance. It is as if we are presented with a rendering of the score rather than an interpretation of the music.

The sound quality too is serviceable without ever being exceptional. For a studio recording it is surprising how distant the choir, orchestra and even the soloists sound. That makes for a very homogeneous sound, so Mendelssohn’s elegant harmonies are much more in evidence than his ingenious counterpoint.

Why is this recording sung in German? Two obvious reasons spring to mind: it was written in German and it is recorded in Germany. But it was premièred in English (in Birmingham) and Naxos is no doubt planning to sell this recording around the English-speaking world. Given the label’s comprehensive approach to the repertoire, their long term plan is probably to release recordings in both languages.

If they are planning ever to revisit this work, a performance on period instruments would also be welcome. What a shame to read the ophicleide part in the score and not be able to hear it. Some narrow bore trombones would also make for more interesting textures in many of the choral movements.

No point though in complaining about what this recording is not. What it is is a perfectly serviceable Elijah, with no frills in the recording nor any in the packaging. Naxos don’t go in for printing librettos, but I’m surprised they didn’t make an exception here as it would easily have fitted in the liner. A budget price Elijah in every sense.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Readers of Rev H R Haweis’ once popular and influential book on “Music and Morals” (1871) will recall his near idolisation of Mendelssohn. In praising him, however, he makes him sound an intolerable prig, in particular for his stated objections to the triviality and indecency of opera, especially French opera, and his determination to stick to the more uplifting genre of oratorio. Rev Haweis makes much of the distinction between a singer in costume pretending to be Elijah and a concert singer singing the prophet’s words.

Clearly the performers on these discs know nothing of this. They approach the work as if it were an opera of the school of Weber or Lortzing with results that are dramatic and utterly enthralling from start to finish—and for once the second part does not come as an anti-climax. The ominous chords at the start immediately portray this particularly intransigent and hairy prophet, well characterised by the imposing voice of Ralf Lukas (whose other roles include Hans Sachs and Wotan), and the main part of the Overture is given real dramatic thrust leading to the great entry of the chorus. From then on the whole work emerges in all its varied character. The soloists are well chosen, with fresh sounding voices as well as the ability to characterise all aspects of the music. The chorus are good if possibly a little heavy at times, but the real hero of the set is the orchestra which performs with the kind of clarity, energy and transparency so essential in Mendelssohn. I suspect that much of this is down to the conductor, Jun Märkl, who sets tempi that feel just right. For once the concluding chorus to Part 1 (“Thanks be to God” in Bartholomew’s translation) avoids sounding like a descent into banality as too often is the case, and the imaginatively scored accompaniments to “O rest in the Lord” and “Hear ye, Israel” make their full effect.

Not everything is perfect. The chorus seem to have been recorded in a more resonant acoustic than the orchestra or soloists and the gaps between movements are sometimes marginally longer than is desirable, but these are minor defects. It is regrettable that a libretto is not included but this can be accessed from the Naxos website if you do not already have one.

Given the current fashion for staging oratorios and other sacred works it is surprising that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has tried this with Elias. After hearing this set directors may be tempted, but I would be surprised if the result could be any more effective as drama than listening to this set. Whatever Mendelssohn’s views on opera were as an adult (he wrote several as a teenager) “Elias” is every bit as dramatic as most of the operas of his contemporaries and this set brings out that drama to the full.

Roger Nichols
BBC Music Magazine, December 2010

This is in every way a ‘big’ Elijah. Climaxes are full-blooded from both orchestra and chorus, and in the narrative sections conductor Jun Märkl brings out the drama with telling use of contrasts in both texture and tempo. Most important of all, Ralf Lukas’s Elijah is the impatient, hot-tempered prophet imagined by Mendelssohn, initially angry at what God is putting him through, and accepting only gradually that wisdom comes through suffering.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

A German language performance of Mendelssohn’s once highly popular oratorio, Elijah. It was composed for the 1846 Birmingham Festival to an English translation by William Bartholemew from the original written by Mendelssohn’s friend, Julius Schubring. Mendelssohn had rejected Schubring’s original idea of an overtly sacred work, his score intended for the more commercial world of the concert hall. Not entirely pleased with his first score, he revised it in time for its London premiere the following year. It was then taken up by the profusion of amateur choirs that existed in England at the time, and it soon challenged Handel’s Messiah as the nation’s most popular ‘sacred’ work. In Germany its success was rather more muted, and it took time to establish itself. Certainly, heard side-by-side, the English language gave the words a greater impact that is smoothed out in German, Elias’s declamatory So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels, lebet is less than imposing. Likewise the opening chorus, Hilf, Herr!, Hilf, Herr! does not convey the naturally accented anxiety of Help, Lord!, Help, Lord!. But let me not labour the point, for it is a matter of personal taste, and highly acclaimed recordings exist in both languages. Ralf Lukas’s generous vibrato draws long flowing and smooth lines, and great joy comes in the beautifully blended soprano and mezzo voices of Ruth Ziesak and Claudia Mahnke, while the much experienced tenor Christoph Genz has that typical sweet and lyric German voice. Though the booklet informs us that the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk is Germany’s oldest radio orchestra and the largest choir in the nation’s Broadcasting Corporation, I am meeting both for the first time. They sound in the premiere league under the orchestra’s Music Director, Jun Märkl. In sum, this is an urgent and well recorded interpretation of Elias.

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