Review: Mendelssohn Elijah, Bradford Festival Choral Society and Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, St George’s Hall, Bradford, Saturday 16th March 2024

Once upon a time, Mendelssohn’s biblical oratorio was staple fare for generations of choral singers and their audiences in church, chapel, and concert hall.

A hugely successful premiere in Birmingham Town Hall, on 26th August 1846 led, three years later, to Elijah’s first Bradford performance in the Lecture Theatre of the old Mechanics Institute.

This auspicious event became the catalyst for the building of a large auditorium worthy of the rapidly expanding Victorian city. St George’s Hall, dubbed a ‘People’s Palace,’ opened its doors in 1853. Thus began the illustrious history of Bradford Festival Choral Society.

After Handel’s Messiah, Elijah became the Society’s most frequently performed oratorio. Its popularity has waned in recent decades, but there is no denying the melodramatic appeal of Mendelssohn’s stirring choruses or his operatic style of writing for the vocal soloists. Strange as it may seem, I have attended performances of Elijah that could be described as stodgy.

Last Saturday’s energetically driven performance was conducted by Thomas Leech, musical director of Bradford Festival Choral Society since 2008. His flexible tempi and shading of dynamics ensured this interpretation never fell into the stodgy category. An excellent solo line up comprised baritone Gareth Brynmor John, soprano Sofia Livotov, mezzo Hannah Mason and tenor Elgan Llýr Thomas. John sang the role of Elijah to powerful and moving dramatic effect. Thomas gave an elegant rendition of Obadiah’s coveted aria If With All Your Hearts Ye Truly Seek Me The attack of 150 choristers backed by the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra was decisive and crystal clear in such splendid roof-raising choruses as Thanks Be to God and Be Not Afraid. Twenty fresh young voices from the Catholic Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme added an extra dimension to the rich tapestry of sound.

There were gorgeous dynamic contrasts in the solo quartet Cast Thy Burdon Upon The Lord. This was followed by Elijah’s beautiful solo O Thou Who Makest Thine Angels Spirits, which leads into an explosive chorus The Fire Descends From Heaven!

The exultant Amen Chorus unleashed a deluge of applause from a delighted St George’s Hall audience. And rightly so.