MENDELSSOHN St Paul BBC National Chorus of
Wales/London Symphony Chorus/Houston Symphony Chorus/BBC National Orchestra
of Wales/ Richard Hickox. Royal Albert Hall, 16 July 2000
The first Sunday Prom was given over to St Paul, an oratorio in two parts, sung in German. It was Felix Mendelssohn's father, Abraham, who, after the success of his son's early A Midsummer Night's Dream music and the Octet, encouraged him to reject his youthful 'elfin' style in favour of a more serious mode of expression such as oratorio.
Mendelssohn was already a great admirer of the oratorios of Handel and Bach and he revived many of their choral works (when praised for St Paul he said he would be glad to be able to write one chorus like Handel). In 1829 he conducted the St Matthew Passion in what was probably the first performance since Bach's death.
Mendelssohn's choice of St Paul as a subject for his first oratorio may have been a tribute to his father, also a Jewish convert to Christianity. But the libretto, which Mendelssohn wrote with help from Julius Schubring, though taken from Scripture and the Prayer book, eschews straight Protestant dogma and reflects Mendelssohn's ambivalence towards some of Paul's doctrines.
The writing in the dramatic choruses is Handelian, and St Paul, like Messiah, contains a beautiful lyrical aria on the passage 'How beautiful are the feet'. The work's use of the Lutheran chorale 'Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme' to comment on the action throughout the work, is taken straight from Bach.
Three choirs - about 260 singers - and a full-sized orchestra were involved in tonight's performance, larger forces than normally used for Handel or Bach nowadays. Hickox controlled the massed forces very well, to produce an even, mellow tone. Mendelssohn's orchestral writing is fuller, smoother and generally more lyrical than Handel's or Bach's, with notably less oboe and the addition of flowing clarinet. For example, in No 7, a beautiful, lyrical clarinet solo accompanies the soprano aria.
The work contains some magnificent touches of orchestration, such as the majestic orchestral introduction to chorus No 15, 'Mache dich auf! Werde Licht!' - 'chuntering' strings and timpani play pianissimo against sustained woodwind. The strings' rhythm doubles in speed periodically, the timpani grows, brass are added and the sound builds up to a fortissimo climax and the entry of the voices. The chorus ends with majestic trumpet fanfares.
No 16 is a majestic rendering of the 'Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme' chorale of the Overture, with chorus, orchestra and organ, emphasising the power of Paul's 'calling'. The forceful attack of Nos 15 and 16 contrasts dramatically with intimacy of No 14, in which women's voices represent God talking to Saul.
The excellent soloists were all well projected and characterful; though I wondered whether it was Peter Coleman-Wright's voice or Mendelssohn's part-writing (or both) which were too smooth and refined for the character of Saul/Paul. Robert Tear, replacing John Mark Ainsley at short notice, sang Stephen, Barnabas and the 'narrator' with great lyricism and expression, though perhaps a little carelessly at times, scooping up to some notes and showing the occasional uncertainty. Susan Gritton's fluid, expressive voice provided soulful recitative with careful enunciation.
Mendelssohn's mixing of Baroque form with a more romantic style seemed incongruous at times - the work is operatic here, staid, even static, there. Although he achieved some drama out of the story's later events (such as the healing of the cripple or the anger of the unbelieving Jews), the real drama comes in the first half, and the second half lacks the same forward impulse. St Paul contains some beautiful movements and wonderful orchestration, but Mendelssohn was primarily a lyrical composer, and the work 's overall dramatic impact is perhaps less than it could be. The influence of Handel and Bach is perhaps too conspicuous and Mendelssohn's own oratorio 'voice' insufficiently developed.
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