The Organ

Elijah: Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall

Elijah: Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall
October 18th

I certainly wasn't alone in sensing the spirit of Mendelssohn hovering around Birmingham Town Hall on this autumnal Saturday evening. And there was every reason why he should be back in this wonderful building, restored to the glory it enjoyed when it was built as a venue to host this frequent visitor to the Birmingham Triennial Festivals.

In August 1846 he conducted the premiere of his tremendous oratorio Elijah here, but the extensive revisions he undertook immediately afterwards meant that the original version remained thenceforth unheard -- until now, when a celebratorily-enlarged Ex Cathedra and the remarkable Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed it in Derek Acock's lovingly meticulous edition, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. And Skidmore must have felt the mantle of the composer more than most, standing where Mendelssohn himself had stood 162 years ago to reveal the glories of this masterpiece to the world. All the drama, the tension, release and solace of the music, characteristics which heavy Victorianised layers of tradition had suppressed, were here in abundance. Rasping strings, probing brass (including the world's only contrabass ophicleide) and eloquent woodwind underpinned the magnificent projection and diction of the versatile choristers.

Some 'authentic' details couldn't be replicated from that heady première: the 60 male altos in a huge chorus, complemented by an orchestra of 125, and the Town Hall organ so beloved of Mendelssohn, who advised its move to the back of the stage, is of course nowadays tuned to modern concert pitch, so a substitute had to be used. Heading an excellent team of solo singers was James Rutherford, for whom the part of the imposing but sorrowing Elijah might have been written. He was simply the business.

Christopher Morley