2016 began with a week in Dortmund rehearsing, recording and performing Mendelssohn's Elias with the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor. In the UK, at least, this is still a work that can still carry the unwelcome fusty taint of high Victorian earnestness; and if some of the accumulated dust is now gradually being removed to reveal again the full depth of the work's drama and invention, this is partly thanks to the efforts of performers more readily associated with earlier music. When it's released later this year, the new BNC recording under Thomas Hengelbrock will join recent entries to the catalogue conducted by Philippe Herreweghe and Paul McCreesh. This isn't such a surprising development, since Mendelssohn was in a sense their forerunner as a pioneering conductor in the “early music movement” of own time, whose immersion in the scores of Bach and Handel was a formative influence on his music. By turning their attention to Mendelssohn, today's early music specialists are continuing to follow the example he set of reviving and revisiting the music of the past, while also tracing continuities between baroque music and Mendelssohn's compositional style.
It's important to note that, for Hengelbrock, a historically-informed Elias didn't mean the wholesale reconstruction of the conditions for the earliest performances of the work, but instead a series of judicious decisions about how best to perform it today with his musicians. On the one hand, the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble play on period instruments; but our choir of 48, though large by the standards of the BNC, was far smaller than the 300-strong chorus who gave the first performance in Birmingham in 1846. To put it another way, for me this was a rare chance both to share the stage with an ophicleide, and to stand a chance of being positioned close enough to see it in action. What really shaped the week, though, was the willingness of the musicians to bring the experimental spirit of the early music movement to their interpretation of this nineteenth-century oratorio – for example, discreetly reducing the instrumental accompaniment of some of the chorale movements, in which Mendelssohn is closest to his baroque predecessors, but which can run the risk of dragging the piece down into stodgy sentimentality if the orchestral texture is allowed to sound too thick. To take these small liberties with the score might seem to be at odds with the project of authentic or historically-informed performance, and certainly it's unlikely that our performance closely resembled the Birmingham première, but on the other hand this is an approach which owes something to the flexible spirit with which Mendelssohn seems to have approached the performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion. It was also an approach which was well suited to the process of putting this live recording together. 'Live' recordings often involve the taping of one or two live concerts, after which there is likely to be a 'patching' session in which any passages marred by errors or noises off can be re-recorded for subsequent editing into the final version. On this occasion we took the opposite approach, leaving the microphones on throughout nearly all of the sessions up to and including the concert at the end of the week. While I wouldn't go quite as far as to say that it was possible to forget the presence of the mics, it did allow the performers scope for spontaneity and risk, and the hope that their interpretations might make it onto disc while still fresh, rather than pressing all of our attention onto the attempt to give a single, 'definitive' concert performance for all time. You should be able to hear the results for yourself when the disc is released later this year.