Peter Schöne, Uwe Münch, Oratorienchor & Sinfonieorchester St.Gallen
Mendelssohn: Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25
St.Laurenzenkirche, St.Gallen, 2019-04-14
Ein überragender Peter Schöne in Mendelssohn’s “Elias” — Kurze Zusammenfassung
Eine solide Aufführung in Chor und Orchester: die Länge des Werks stellte an die Ausdauer, das Durchhaltevermögen des Laienchors hohe Anforderungen. Eigentlich getragen wurde das Konzert vom Bariton Peter Schöne, dessen sängerische Qualitäten (Ausdrucksbreite, Präsenz, Volumen, Wandlungsvermögen und dynamische Breite) alle anderen Stimmen überragte. Seine Rolle nahm in diesem Oratorium, aber auch im Eindruck der Zuhörer eine zentrale Stelle ein. Hervorragend war ebenso die Mezzosopranistin Dorottya Láng.
Natürlich hat Mendelssohns Musik trotz einiger Längen im letzten Drittel ihr Ziel (die Herzen des Publikums) nicht verfehlt, und der Ausklang, die lange Stille mit dem Läuten der großen Glocke nach dem letzten Akkord, sorgte für einen langen, harmonischen Nachklang auf dem Nachhauseweg.
- Mendelssohn: Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25
- The Performance
The Oratorienchor St.Gallen (Oratorio Choir Saint Gall) is one of Switzerland’s oldest choirs: a traditional, mixed choirs with currently around 80 lay singers. The roots of the choir are in a collegium musicum that was founded 1620: next year, the choir is celebrating its 400th anniversary. For over 160 years now (first in 1854, then in a continuous series starting in 1859), the choir is organizing an annual concert on Palm Sunday. These concerts are the choir’s principal activity. The venue for these concerts is St.Gallen’s St.Laurenzenkirche, in the immediate neighborhood of the famous Abbey of Saint Gall. This was the choir’s 162nd Palm Sunday concert, with two performances: one on Saturday, one on Palm Sunday. This year, the concert featured one single, big composition: the Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25, by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847).
The conductor in this performance was the choir’s director, Uwe Münch, a German conductor, who is also teaching a various conservatories in Germany. Uwe Münch has two assistants: Claire Pasquier (correpetition, rehearsal assistance) and Isabell Marquardt (voice training).
Naturally, for these annual concerts, the Oratorienchor St.Gallen is working with the principal, local orchestra, the Sinfonieorchester St.Gallen. this is a professional, symphony orchestra, founded 1877, now covering concerts, opera, operetta, and musical performances. The orchestra consists of around 70 permanent members. Starting in this season, the Lithuanian Modestas Pitrenas (*1974) is the orchestra’s chief conductor.
Naturally, the choir (SATB up to SSAATTBB) has a key role in Mendelssohn’s oratorio, making it a demanding piece for lay choir. The challenge is not so much in virtuosity (coloraturas, complex polyphony, intonation), but in the sheer duration of the work, lasting well over two hours. From that point-of-view alone: congrats to the choir for tackling this task!
Among the four solo singers, the baritone, represents Elias (Elijah), a role that is even more central, long and strenuous than that of the choir. Indeed, the performance completely relies on that central part. So, it was for good reasons that the organizers hired one of the prominent German baritones, Peter Schöne (*1976, see also Wikipedia). This was my second encounter with this artist, see my earlier report on a concert in Basel on 2018-03-29, where Peter Schöne sang in a passion oratorio. I was definitely impressed back then, even though I could not have listened to him any farther away (I had a hard time even just seeing the singers). Let me just quote the following lines from that earlier review:
A very impressive voice—and, in some ways, I would have preferred Peter Schöne in the role of Jesus. The timbre, volume and character of his voice seemed the better fit for that role! That statement is pointless, though, as Schöne was “just” a last-minute substitute…
The other solo singers were
- Angela Vallone, soprano (USA)
- Dorottya Láng, mezzosoprano (*1986, Budapest, HU)
- Paul Schweinester, tenor (*1985, Innsbruck, AT, see also Wikipedia)
In addition, the oratorio asks for a boy singer (soprano, in this case a woman out of the choir), as well as a double quartet, performed by soloists in combination with singers out of the choir, see also below.
The St.Laurenzenkirche is a fairly big church, originally built 1413 – 1423, later expanded. 1850 – 1854, it was re-modeled in neo-Gothic style. The church now features an impressive organ—not on the organ balcony, but rather filling the choir:
For this concert, a podium had been erected between the pulpit and the organ.
My wife and I had seats (186, 187) near the left-hand edge of the nave, in row 12. I hadn’t been aware where exactly we would be seated. Just in case, I took along my camera—however, the conditions for taking photos were not ideal, especially as I did not want to disturb listeners in my neighborhood. I apologize for the modest quality. All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).
Mendelssohn: Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25
The Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25 is a work that Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) finished composing in 1846, after working on this for 10 years. For further comments on the oratorio see my review from a Philharmonic Concert at Zurich Opera on 2018-07-15. The descriptive sections below (not specific to this performance) were copied from that earlier review.
The oratorio asks for an orchestra with 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 ophikleïde (today typically a bass tuba), timpani, strings, and organ. The organ obviously was missing here. Then, of course, there is the key role of the choir (4 up to 8 voices). At Mendelssohn’s time, it was not unusual to see choirs of several hundred singers. Plus, there is a separate choir of angels (double quartet, and sub-sets), plus roles for 4 or 5 soloists: Elias/Elijah (baritone), the Widow (soprano), the Queen (alto), Obadjah and Ahab (both sung by the tenor).
It may in parts have been Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage / provenance that made him select material from the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:19 and 2 Kings 2:1 and related texts, such as Psalms). The oratorio is organized in two parts, featuring 20 and 22 “numbers”:
- Introduction “So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels lebet” (As God the Lord of Israel liveth)
- Chorus “Hilf, Herr!” (Help, Lord!)
- Duet with choir “Herr, höre unser Gebet!” (Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!)
- Recitative (Obadiah) “Zerreißet eure Herzen” (Ye people, rend your hearts)
- Aria (Obadiah) “So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet” (If with all your hearts)
- Chorus “Aber der Herr sieht es nicht” (Yet doth the Lord see it not)
- Recitative (Angel I) “Elias, gehe von hinnen” (Elijah! get thee hence)
- Double quartet “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels)
Recitative (Angel I) “Nun auch der Bach vertrocknet ist” (Now Cherith’s brook is dried up)
- Recitative, aria & duet (Widow, Elijah) “Was hast du mir getan” (What have I to do with thee?)
- Chorus “Wohl dem, der den Herrn fürchtet” (Blessed are the men who fear him)
- Recitative with choir “So wahr der Herr Zebaoth lebet” (As God the Lord of Sabaoth liveth)
- Chorus “Baal erhöre uns!” (Baal, we cry to thee; hear and answer us!)
- Recitative (Elijah, Ahab) with choir “Rufet lauter! Denn er ist ja Gott!” (Call him louder, for he is a god!)
- Recitative (Elijah) with choir “Rufet lauter! Er hört euch nicht” (Call him louder! he heareth not!)
- Aria (Elijah) “Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels” (Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel!)
- Quartet “Wirf dein Anliegen auf den Herrn” (Cast thy burden upon the Lord)
- Recitative (Elijah) with choir “Der du deine Diener machst zu Geistern” (O thou, who makest thine angels spirits)
- Aria (Elijah) “Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer” (Is not his word like a fire?)
- Arioso “Weh ihnen, dass sie von mir weichen!” (Woe unto them who forsake him!) A
- Recitative (Obadiah, Elijah) with choir “Hilf deinem Volk, du Mann Gottes!” (O man of God, help thy people!)
- Chorus “Dank sei dir, Gott” (Thanks be to God)
- Aria “Höre, Israel” (Hear ye, Israel!)
- Chorus “Fürchte dich nicht, spricht unser Gott” (Be not afraid, saith God the Lord)
- Recitative (Elijah, Queen) with choir “Der Herr hat dich erhoben” (The Lord hath exalted thee)
- Chorus “Wehe ihm, er muss sterben!” (Woe to him, he shall perish)
- Recitative “Du Mann Gottes, laß meine Rede” (Man of God, now let my words)
- Aria (Elijah) “Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele” (It is enough, O Lord now take away my life)
- Recitative “Siehe, er schläft” (See, now he sleepeth)
- Trio “Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen” (Lift thine eyes)
- Chorus “Siehe, der Hüter Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht” (He, watching over Israel, slumbers not)
- Recitative (Angel I, Elijah) “Stehe auf, Elias, denn du hast einen großen Weg vor dir” (Arise, Elijah, for thou hast a long journey)
- Aria (Angel I) “Sei stille dem Herrn” (O rest in the Lord)
- Chorus “Wer bis an das Ende beharrt, der wird selig” (He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved)
- Recitative (Elijah, Angel II) “Herr, es wird Nacht um mich” (Night falleth round me, O Lord!)
- Chorus “Der Herr ging vorüber” (Behold! God the Lord passeth by!)
- Quartet with choir “Seraphim standen über ihm; Heilig ist Gott der Herr” (Above him stood the Seraphim; Holy is God the Lord)
- Choir recitative (Elijah) “Gehe wiederum hinab! Ich gehe hinab” (Go, return upon thy way! I go on my way)
- Arioso (Elijah) “Ja, es sollen wohl die Berge weichen” (For the mountains shall depart)
- Chorus “Und der Prophet Elias brach hervor” (Then did Elijah the prophet break forth)
- Aria “Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten” (Then shall the righteous shine forth)
- Recitative “Darum ward gesendet der Prophet Elias” (Behold, God hath sent Elijah)
- Chorus “Aber einer erwacht von Mitternacht” (But the Lord, from the north hath raised one)
Quartet “Wohlan, alle, die ihr durstig seid” (O come everyone that thirsteth)
- Chorus “Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen” (And then shall your light break forth)
“Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Creator)
Unlike in my other reviews, I’m not strictly following the chronology of the performance, but I left the above list in the review, such that I can refer to specific numbers in the text below. There was no real intermission, only a very short break.
As it was the organizer of the concert, let me first address the choir: as pointed out above, Mendelssohn’s oratorio is a big, challenging task for the choir. One certainly cannot expect a performance at professional level. Still, for a lay choir, the outcome was quite impressive. The voices were well-balanced and homogeneous, there were very few instances when one could make out individual voices (expectedly in high-pitch passages in the soprano). Also the intonation was very good in general—with the one, minor exception of critical a cappella bars in No.34 (Der Herr ging vorüber).
The volume was not overwhelming (for the size of the choir), but certainly adequate for the venue and the size of the orchestra. At a larger scale, the singers followed the intent of the conductor, the requirements, the dynamics of the score. Sure, an extreme pianissimo is very hard to achieve with lay singers (at least, if it is still supposed to project, to be controlled). There were sections where the score asks for pp: e.g., No.29, “Siehe, der Hüter Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht“, or No.32, “Wer bis an das Ende beharrt, der wird selig“. Here, the volume was mp, if not mf. This may well have been deliberate, in order not to lose sonority. Still, I occasionally regretted the lack of courage to venture a true pianissimo.
The choir certainly proved to be well-prepared: the singers kept an eye on the conductor, remained attentive: I did not notice any major mishap in coordination, neither within the choir, nor between choir and orchestra.
Diction / Pronunciation
Especially in lyrical segments, the choir produced very nice cantilenas, the big lines were OK. However, at a “local” scale, I missed expression, drama. A lot of this is due to weaknesses in the diction / pronunciation. Almost throughout (i.e., with the exception of a few unison segments), the choir seemed to produce mostly vowels, consonants, especially “s”, “z” and “t” rarely reached the listener’s ear, and without a score of the text in the booklet, one could hardly ever understand the text. I do concede, however, that this is a challenge with most lay choirs.
One segment which turned out rather flat was at the end of in Part I, No.20, “Dank sei dir, Gott” (Thanks be to God!), where “Die Wasserwogen sing groß und brausen gewaltig” (The stromy billows are high, their fury is mighty) sounded rather shallow. Shouldn’t these bars express utter astonishment, overwhelming amazement, if not scare? Similarly, in No.34, “Der Herr ging vorüber” (Behold, God, the Lord passed by), there are pp moments such as “Und in dem Säuseln nahte sich der Herr” (And in that still voice, onward came the Lord) lacked all mystery, the silent amazement, the miracle. This should have been softer, but more intense!
On the other hand, the “Baal!” calls in No.11, Baal, erhöre uns (Baal, we cry to thee), lacked urgency and drama. On the brighter side, the choir performance avoided over-indulging in blissful melodies. Yet, the listener could certainly enjoy the composer’s beautiful melodic inventions, and the broad / more epic segments were as good as one can expect for a lay choir of this size.
In the second part of the oratorio, maybe in the last half hour, I noted some flattening in the choir’s expression.This must (at least in parts) have been the result of slight fatigue, which one could expect after two hours of performance (and this was the second of two concert on consecutive days!). One may claim that Mendelssohn’s composition has weaknesses, lengths towards the end. However, there may have been some aspect of tiring on the listener’s side, as it was strenuous to try understanding what the choir was singing. Also, the lack of understanding (and “local drama / expression” on the choir’s side) may have made the music sound rather uniform / repetitive (if not never-ending)? I think it demonstrated the challenges of this oratorio both on the listener’s as well as on the choir’s side.
Uwe Münch conducted with a short baton, with lively gestures, focusing on the choir, which never let their choirmaster down. In a way, I felt that the conductor operated “in choir mode”, i.e., he did not challenge the choir with excessive rubato, let alone agogics. There are limitation in the amount of tempo flexibility that one can expect from a lay choir—occasionally, I was hoping for a little more in occasional ritenuto, or in more subtlety in endings / fermatas. I sometimes missed that extra flexibility in the accompaniment to the solo singers.
The overture exposed some weaknesses in the coordination, especially in the violins. These may well have been “start-up problems”. Thereafter, I did not notice any major mishaps—however, for the rest of the oratorio, the orchestra rarely played a prominent role, and the listener’s attention was absorbed by the singers, most prominently Peter Schöne and the Choir. As for sound and balance: I was new to the acoustics of the venue. So, I can’t tell whether the somewhat dark sound of the brass instruments or the occasionally limited transparency were a consequence of the church acoustics. In general, though, I did like the venue, in that it did not feature excessive reverberation and gave adequate support for all voices, from the timpani to the woodwinds, the brass and the strings.
Peter Schöne, Baritone / Elijah — ★★★★★
Clearly, Peter Schöne was the highlight of the event. His role prevails in the oratorio. Schöne’s performance, however, was mind-boggling! I don’t imply that the singer inappropriately reigned over everybody else—this is how Mendelssohn conceived that role. In the 12 bars of the introduction, I was not overly impressed—but that turned out to be a matter of getting acquainted with the acoustics, and the singer certainly did not try blasting the audience with the first recitative.
A Great Voice
Thereafter, however, I was (and remained) flabbergasted by this voice: the volume, the beautiful, full timbre, the singer’s presence, the expression, the intensity, the projection across the entire dynamic and tonal range. No, it’s not one of these steely, threatening baritone voices—rather, a “royal” one, featuring a well-rounded, balanced tone, full of warmth. Plus, when he stood up, one hardly could see him breathe—he just opened his mouth and seemed to sing effortlessly. For over two hours he didn’t show signs of fatigue, rather kept the amazing level of his performance throughout the concert!
One could certainly also sense the singer’s stage experience, which to some degree explains the strength in his expression, his presence. He did not need to resort to gestures / “theater”: it’s all in his voice. One example for the changeability in his voice was in No.12, “Rufet lauter!” (Call him louder!). He momentarily (for a few words only) made his voice sound cynical or mocking in “oder schläft er vielleicht, dass er aufwache” (or, peradventure, he sleepeth, so awaken him). After this, he instantly returned to the warm “Elijah tone” instantly. I don’t think the accompaniment allowed for as much agogics as he wanted to apply.
Angela Vallone, Soprano
As a soloist, I found Angela Vallone’s voice somewhat nervous in the vibrato. The latter sometimes affected the clarity of tonal transitions (especially in the occasional coloraturas, or in minor / passing notes). It probably also affected the clarity of her diction / pronunciation. On the other hand, it helped dramatic segments in her part. Angela Vallone’s voice projected well (enough) for the venue, the accompaniment. Though, her volume seemed somewhat limited in the lower register.
Dorottya Láng, Mezzosoprano — ★★★★
A warm, full-sounding, harmonious voice, with excellent range and volume, carrying though the orchestral accompaniment, and maintaining presence also in vocal ensembles. I particularly liked the dramatic, expressive segments in her part. On the other hand, some lyrical moments could perhaps have been slightly calmer? But that’s a minor quibble—overall, a beautiful voice!
Paul Schweinester, Tenor
A light tenor voice with a clear, bright timbre, somewhat nervous in the vibrato, but projecting well. Good diction, understandable.
When solo singers performed in a duet, trio, or quartet—it was amazing to see how well Peter Schöne (especially) and Dorottya Láng (the strongest of the solo voices) controlled their volume & timbre, in order to form a homogeneous, harmonious ensemble—despite the vastly different characteristics among the soloists. The same holds true (even more so, presumably), when soloists joined choir members for a group of angels (SSAATTBB or SSAA). At the same time, I think that Uwe Münch can be really happy with the quality of the solo singers among his choir.
A solid, robust performance on the part of orchestra and choir—and a superb concert experience considering Dorottya Láng and particularly Peter Schöne. And of course, Mendelssohn’s music did not fail to reach the audience (despite some lengths towards the end). After the last chord, Uwe Münch stopped his movements, and the listeners now realized that into the last notes, the largest bell had started to toll: loud enough to be heard throughout the nave, yet not interfering with the last chords. For several minutes, the audience kept silent, listening to the GG of the church bell: a wonderful idea, touching, long-lasting in the listener’s mind, even on the way home!
Unlike with most concerts, I decided not to give an overall rating for the performance. I do not have a separate rating scale for lay choirs—my scale applies to all concerts and reflect my personal concert experience. Even if I had a “lay scale”, combining that with the rating for professional musicians would be unfair / unjust.
Choir, Conductor — ★★★
Orchestra — ★★★
Peter Schöne — ★★★★★
Angela Vallone — ★★★
Dorottya Láng — ★★★★
Paul Schweinester — ★★★
Angels, etc. — ★★★