As a young music critic, Bernard Shaw poked fun at anyone who thought Mendelssohn was a genius. Shaw conceded that Mendelssohn was capable of touching tenderness and refinement and sometimes ‘nobility and pure fire’, but his music was marred by kid-glove gentility, conventional sentimentality and – worst of all – ‘despicable oratorio-mongering’. Shaw’s pet hate was St Paul, with its ‘Sunday-school sentimentalities and its music-school ornamentalities’. He was only slightly less catty about Mendelssohn’s other oratorio, Elijah. Although he acknowledged its ‘exquisite prettiness’, he concluded that its composer was ‘a wonder whilst he is flying; but when his wings fail him, he walks like a parrot’.
Now the pendulum has swung, but not all the way. Elijah is acclaimed for the monumental sweep of the choruses, the exquisite woodwind sonorities – it was written soon after the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and some sweet melodies. But it lasts nearly two-and-a-half hours, for God’s sake, and it’s hard to forget Shaw’s jibe about music schools: the modulations have a seamless textbook quality, without a whisper of dissonance.
But I did forget it at the Barbican on Sunday night, thanks to an electrifying performance by the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Sir Antonio Pappano. Nobody needed reminding that he’s one of the greatest opera conductors of our age. In the overture, his thrusting tempo made Mendelssohn sound like Verdi. During the recitatives, the intervening chords hit like thunderbolts; surely a fatal stabbing was in the offing.
Elsewhere, he applied surges of rubato to repeated chords that reminded me of Berlioz. But what he really showed us was that, despite the tidy harmonies and dusting of caster sugar, Mendelssohn hadn’t entirely lost the charisma that produced the teenage miracle of his Octet.
The chorus was on fire, at full size but ferociously agile, more than a match for the snarling brass (Mendelssohn’s expert orchestration again).