RSNO: Choral Classics, Elijah Usher Hall

Sir Andrew Davis
Edinburgh Guide

By Barnaby Miln

What could be better, on the eve of the opening day of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, than to hear Mendelssohn’s magnificent oratorio Elijah. The intelligent planning by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra should, however, have been backed up with marketing targeted at the hundreds of Commissioners arriving in Edinburgh from all over Scotland. As it was a shame that about a third of the seats in the Usher Hall were empty.

Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family but before long a Lutheran, started work on the oratorio in 1836. Its first performance, by now at the behest of the Birmingham Music Festival, was in 1846 - not long after the Disruption.

In his introduction to the pre-concert talk, Dávur Juul Magnussen, the principal trombone, told Sir Andrew Davis, standing alongside, that there was no conductor better qualified to show us how Elijah should be performed. And Sir Andrew, always enthusiastically keen to ask and then answer his own questions, told us how the performance had been in the moulding for several years. We were to hear it sung in German; English performances over the years had become more and more soppy and sentimental, he said.

Although the orchestra was smaller than in some concerts every seat rising up behind was filled with chorus members and the junior chorus was singing too. Out from the chorus at the side we heard The Youth, 14 year old Alice Yeoman from Douglas Academy, and short solo moments from the guest principal cello, Christian Elliott. Michael Bawtree seemed to be playing the organ all the way through, high up and mostly hidden from view behind the chorus.

But it was the four solo singers who stole the evening; all four at the top of their profession and apparently delighted to be under Sir Andrew’s baton, as was he to have them, he had told us. The audience was particularly appreciative of the baritone who sang the part of Elijah, Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Barry Banks, tenor, was feisty Obadiah with Catherine Wyn-Roberts, mezzo-soprano, and Scottish soprano Lisa Milne.

It seemed so appropriate that my after-concert discussion - outside on the steps of the Usher Hall - was with a distinguished retired Church of Scotland minister, who with his wife, had so thoroughly enjoyed the evening. And I wholeheartedly agreed.