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Rilling and CSO storm the heavens in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”

Helmuth Rilling
Chicago Classical Review

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Few musicians can equal Helmuth Rilling in the German choral repertoire and the conductor proved that once again in Friday night’s resounding Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Elijah is being presented in cooperation with the American Choral Directors’ Association, which is having its national conference in Chicago this week. That means Saturday’s repeat, like Thursday’s opening performance, is a private ACDA event and not open to the public.

That’s unfortunate because Friday’s performance of Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio offered just the kind of vital approach needed to make skeptics see this work in a fresh light.

Hugely successful in its time—particularly in England, where Elijah established Mendelssohn’s reputation—the work has gotten a bad press over the last century from George Bernard Shaw on down, not entirely without reason.

Yet the fiery, dramatic reading led by the 77-year-old German conductor made one listen to this music with fresh ears. Consistently energized and with firm forward momentum, Rilling and the CSO invested this music with crackling fire and urgency, stripping away the accumulated detritus and marmoreal qualities of amateur choral societies and deftly negotiating the sentimental Victorian pieties.

It helped that, in addition to notably dynamic playing by the CSO, Rilling had a first-rate quartet. Making his U.S. debut Markus Eiche was simply terrific in the role of the title prophet. The German baritone sang with apt patriarchal authority and brought a stentorian gravitas to the music as well as sensitivity. Yet Elijah’s denunciations of the priests of Baal were attacked with an almost operatic intensity and grandeur. Eiche rose to the celebrated aria Es ist genug in outstanding style, conveying the sorrowful as well as impassioned expression, aided by John Sharp’s warmly molded obbligato cello.

The others soloists were on the same level. James Taylor was the excellent Obadiah, deploying his vibrant, penetrating tenor to fine effect. Mezzo Bridget Remnert brought dusky tone and sensitivity to her Part One arioso. A late replacement for Annette Dasch, Alexandra Coku sang with heartfelt commitment and brought a genuine dramatic engagement to the tale of the widow.

Prepared by Duain Wolfe, the CSO Chorus provided majestic power and weighty amplitude to Mendelssohn’s vast choral set pieces though enunciation could have been crisper with words too often indistinct.