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Ionarts-at-Large: Daniele Gatti’s Elijah in Vienna

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You’d think that the Musikverein’s Golden Hall would be too small for Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But if you get booked there (as the Orchestre national de France for three nights of three programs), you don’t say “no”. And the Musikverein surely wouldn’t say “can you bring something smaller scale? Elijah would work so much better suited for the Konzerthaus’ Great Hall across the street.” And in any case, if one went by what a hall is too big or small for, there’d never be any Shostakovich at the Herkulessaal in Munich or Mozart at the MET. And who knows…. maybe the Orchestre national de France under the inconsistent but at-his-best-ingenious Daniele Gatti (finally at the helm of an A-Symphonic Orchestra to work with on a regular basis and soon with the Concertgebouw!) would find a way to make it all work miraculously well?

Chance and good fortune had blown me onto a seat in the Goldener Saal, on that February 14th, that I would not normally be assigned. I like that… it breaks the monotony of orchestra seats and it gives you a chance to really explore a hall and sound it out for strong and weak spots. I found myself on the right side balcony above the chorus, behind the violas and cellos and close enough to toss a cough drop into the tuba’s bell, had I been so inclined. The acoustic is much better than one is inclined to assume, but the violas were hard to hear (cheeky sod if you think this is a setup for a jab against violas). The strings in general are a little set back from the winds and brass and the chorus (the Vienna Singverein) turned out its bit in magnificently ear-shattering manner. All throats on deck and all out, the singers lustily indulged in Mendelssohn’s writing which seems to have been intended to specifically entertain and occupy an excellent large choir. Much of the vocal writing has a lot in common with Mendelssohn’s stupendous Second Symphony… though the beginning of Eljah seems to quote, and quite blatantly, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.

Melodic, glorious and loud are Elijah’s three distinguishing characteristics. These were largely met, although the vocal contributions were uneven and yes, the whole thing did seem a bit senselessly loud at times and on the fast—but not necessarily exciting—side. Peter Mattei’ s passable Elijah had light trouble with the early high notes while tenor Rainer Trost (subbing for the scheduled Michael Schade) had a very good night. After a decent start, he opened up and offered declamatory beauty and security in spades. There were also moments of powerfully-lusty beauty to be had from soprano Genia Kühmeier while alto Clementine Margaine’s nicely husky, strong voice was marred a little by the occasional flat moment. The 2011 Rieger organ of the Musikverein blended nicely into the orchestral sound, perhaps surprising given that I sat less than ten feet from the (albeit purely decorative) pipes of its prospect. The French voices for the solo-quartet were decent, but included a calamitous hauler. The short of the night, however, was that I’ll be happy to be back in the stalls again, next time, and that there was precious little miraculous about this performance.

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