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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Psalms

CD 1
Psalm 42, op. 42: Wie der Hirsch schreit (As the doe longs for running streams)
Psalm 95, op. 46: Kommt laßt uns anbeten (Come in, let us bow)
Psalm 115, op. 31: Nicht unserm Namen, Herr (Not unto us, O Lord)
CD 2
Psalm 114, op. 51: Da Israel aus Ägypten zog (When Israel came out of Egypt)
Hymn op. 96: Lass’, o Herr mich Hülfe finden (Help me, O Lord, to find peace)
Psalm 98, op. 91: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a new song)
Lauda Sion (Praise the Lord), op. 73
Gulbenkian Choir and Orchestra/Michel Corboz
Recorded at the Eglise de Jesus, Lisbon. February 1977 (Psalms 42 and 95) ADD; July 1987 (Psalms 98, 115 and Lauda Sion); June 1987 (Psalm 114 and op. 96) DDD
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 61692-2 [70:37 + 63:07]

 

Revered in his lifetime as a great composer Mendelssohn was to become regarded far less favourably, suffering considerable criticism. It is said that his reputation was badly sabotaged by the anti-Semitism of the supporters of Liszt and Wagner and then again in the mid-twentieth century by the National Socialists in Germany who for example used famous works by Mendelssohn, and also Mahler and Schoenberg as examples of unacceptable music. It is only a handful of compositions that keep Mendelssohn’s name in the spotlight today, namely his Violin Concerto, the Italian symphony, the youthful Octet and Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is good to see that much of the wonderful chamber music is at last receiving substantial acclaim with many excellent cycles available. Exploration will reveal that the choral works contain some of the highlights of his output although in the main they are rarely heard and deserve better regard. This fine Warner Classics Apex double set of previously released material from their Erato back catalogue should provide significant help in redressing the balance and assist in Mendelssohn’s rehabilitation.

Undoubtedly the choral music of Mendelssohn owes a tremendous debt to J.S. Bach as well as that of Handel. Mendelssohn utilised sacred texts and frequently used Bach as his principal model. So impressed was he with Bach’s music that he arranged and conducted a revival of the ‘Great’ St. Matthew Passion at a time when Bach was very much out of favour.

Neglected and overshadowed in the main by his orchestral works Mendelssohn’s choral music is not to everyone’s taste and I have recently seen a disparaging review that compared Mendelssohn's choral music to a limp salad or soggy cereal. In my opinion Mendelssohn choral music is a wonderful link between the late-Baroque of J.S. Bach and the high-Romanticism of Brahms, without reaching the sacred reverence of Bach or achieving the depth of emotional intensity of Brahms. As a composer of sacred texts, Mendelssohn is principally remembered today for the oratorios: St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846), two pillars of his genre that secured his fame in the restorationist Germany and Victorian Britain, where they were frequently performed at numerous public music festivals and sometimes conducted by the composer. In spite of the forceful and enduring backlash against things Germanic and Victorian that prevailed in Britain following the outbreak of the Great War, these two Oratorios have remained ever-popular with British provincial choral societies. Yet St. Paul and Elijah were accompanied by an impressive, though now largely forgotten series of Psalm settings, for varying scorings of chorus, soloists and orchestra, that also figured prominently in the European music life of the 1830s and 1840s. For me Mendelssohn’s choral music has a special and unique appeal. At its very best it is convincing and expressive, bright and airy in tone with a gentle serenity and a rare beauty.

The first work is the 42 Psalm, (As the doe longs for running streams), op. 42. Composed in 1837, Mendelssohn wrote several of the eight sections whilst on honeymoon and the others shortly afterwards. Lasting for twenty-five minutes the composer held the score in high regard stating that it was, "the best thing of its kind that I have written". The work reaches heights of sublime passion in praise of the glory of God. Mendelssohn required the work to be performed with particular tenderness.

The 95 Psalm ‘Kommt, lasst uns anbeten’ (Come in let us bow) op. 46. Together with 42 Psalm the score was composed in 1839 and revised three years later, it is in five sections and uses a baroque-like piety.

115 Psalm, ‘Nicht unserm Namen, Herr’ (Not unto us, O Lord), op. 31 was the first of Mendelssohn’s great Psalm settings to be published and is based on the Vulgate version of the Bible with German words added later. A definite influence of Handel is felt throughout this fine work.

The 114 Psalm, ‘Da Israel aus Ägypten zog’ (When Israel came out of Egypt) op. 51 was composed in 1839 and dedicated to the painter J.W. Schimer; again it contains echoes of Handel.

In the booklet notes we are told very little about the four movement Hymn, ‘Lass’, o Herr mich Hülfe finden’ (Help me, O Lord, to find peace) op. 96. Composed in 1840, Mendelssohn revised the score in 1841 and again in 1843.

The 98 Psalm, ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’ (Sing to the Lord a new song) op. 91 is in three movements and was composed in 1846. A short work lasting about eight minutes, the score was a commission for the New Year celebrations at the Court of Berlin in 1844. This is a glorious work which demonstrates more of Mendelssohn’s craftsmanship rather than plumbing great emotion depths.

An ambitious work the ‘Lauda Sion‘ (Praise the Lord) Op.73 was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church of St. Martin in Luttich to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. Completed in 1846 the score is a contemporary of his great Oratorio Elijah and combines Catholic restraint with a degree of baroque festivity. Sketched in broad strokes and heavily orchestrated there are solemn and heavy textures contrasted with occasions of more relaxed lyrical moods.

Listeners new to Mendelssohn’s sacred choral works should relish these excellent compositions. There are several ‘gems’ to be discovered here not least the most resourceful and accomplished ‘Lauda Sion‘ (Praise the Lord) Op.73. The honours are equally divided with impressive singing and orchestral playing from all concerned. Under the direction of Swiss-born conductor Michel Corboz the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian choir and soloists offer a fine display of control and technique and produce an eager sense of atmosphere. The instrumental playing from the Gulbenkian Orchestra, although not without blemish, is dedicated and fresh with plenty of character.

This worthwhile Apex release should provide considerable pleasure.

Michael Cookson



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