Elijah: SCO/Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

For all his own talent as a conductor, and acknowledging the immediate and lasting popularity of his oratorio Elijah in its own era, it is very tempting to suggest that Felix Mendelssohn may never have heard a performance of the work quite as exquisite as this one.

Already acclaimed last summer at the BBC Proms, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s strategy of scheduling a reprise of that success as its 50th anniversary season finale was a fitting climax for its loyal, and clearly growing, audience. If the work had fallen from fashion, principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO players and excellent chorus remade the case for its Victorian place in the repertoire just behind Handel’s Messiah.

There is no doubt that that work – and Bach’s Passions – were in the composer’s mind. Elijah’s Part One aria Is not his word like a fire? and the mezzo-soprano one Woe unto them who forsake him! that follows it are unmistakeably Handelian, while that narrative structure of the work, with its stories of the worship of Baal and the revenge of Jezebel from the Old Testament, clearly recalls both composers.

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But if there was an early music sensibility to the conductor’s brisk tempi and in the instrumentation, playing and singing, there was also an awareness of the influence of opera on the work, and the fuller orchestration for an augmented SCO.

Perhaps the brass slightly overpowered the opening, pre-overture, utterance of Roderick Williams as Elijah, but beyond that Emelyanychev had the balance of everyone on stage in its precise place, his attention to every detail, vocally as well as instrumentally, a joy to watch.

Baritone Williams was as characterful as always in the title role, leading an absolutely stellar cast of expressive soloists, with tenor Thomas Walker, sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Rowan Pierce and mezzo Anna Stéphany. Pierce took up a place alongside the chorus in the choir balcony to sing the Youth in Part One, while the trio of women moved behind the orchestra for the unaccompanied setting of Psalm 121. With a choir soprano taking the later Seraphim solo, the acoustic of the City Halls was exploited to the full.

Crucially though, there is surely not another amateur orchestra chorus or choral society in the land that could have performed this piece as precisely as director Gregory Batsleer’s SCO singers did. With a 22-voice chamber choir in the front row performing the music specifically calibrated for “semi-chorus”, it saved its full might for the demonstration of divine power in Part Two. From the purity and ensemble of the tenors’ The harvest now is over at the beginning to the declamatory concluding Amen, this collective is on peerless form.