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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Paulus (St. Paul) Oratorio, Op. 36 (1834-36) [123:49]
Maria Cristina Kiehr (soprano)
Werner Güra (tenor)
Michael Volle (bass)
Kammerchor Stuttgart
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
rec. 16-17, 19 September 2005, Forum Ludwigsburg, Germany.
Texts in German with English translations.
Digitally recorded hybrid SACD.
CARUS SACD 83.214 [70:01 + 53:48]

Specialising in spiritual choral music from all periods the Carus label continue their impressive series of Mendelssohn sacred choral works with the oratorio Paulus (St. Paul); their eleventh volume under the baton of Frieder Bernius.

The oratorios Paulus and Elijah are two mainstays of the genre that secured Mendelssohnís fame in the restorationist Germany and Victorian Britain, where they were frequently performed at numerous 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, Paulus and Elijah have remained perennially popular with the British provincial choral societies. On the other hand, owing mainly to changes in music fashion, Mendelssohnís impressive output of psalm settings, motets, cantatas, Walpurgisnacht and the Lobgesang - works that figured so prominently in the European music life of the 1830s and 1840s - are either largely forgotten or rarely performed.

According to biographer Michael P. Steinberg, "Paulus was written in the aftermath of Abraham Mendelssohnís death and as a tribute to his memory." Musicologist Edward Dannreuther opined that Paulus was written probably for festival concert performance purposes with a devotional spirit rather than purely for ecclesiastical reasons. Mendelssohnís sacred choral music contains 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.

Mendelssohn composed the oratorio Paulus for solo voices, chorus and orchestra between 1834 and 1836. Assisted by Pastor Julius Schubring, he prepared the text from the Bible centring the oratorio on the book of St. Paul and focusing on the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

Paulus was a tremendous success at its première at the Lower Rhine festival in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1836 and gave the twenty-seven year old Mendelssohn his international breakthrough. In the eyes of musicologist Francis Toye, for Mendelssohn the triumph of Paulus, "eventually established him, in England in particular, as the legitimate successor to Handel." Many performances soon followed throughout Europe, Russian and also in the USA. Probably Mendelssohnís most admired score in his lifetime, composer Robert Schumann remarked upon the, "indelible colour of instrumentation" and the, "masterful playing with all the forms of the art of composition" describing it as a, "jewel of the present." However Paulus has not achieved the same enduring level of greatness as that of his later oratorio Elijah; a more mature score that is performed more often with a far larger number of available recordings. Paulus is cast in two large sections. According to music writer David Ewen the first section is, "essentially dramatic" and the second section, "lyrical and contemplative".

Section one of Paulus contains numerous highlights and is the more successful of the two parts. I was struck by how much the robust and elaborate opening chorus Herr, der du bist der Gott (Lord, Thou alone art God) (track 2, CD1) reminded me of Handelís coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest (HWV 258). The splendid declamation of the soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr in the aria Jerusalem, die du tötest die Propheten (Jerusalem! They that killest the Prophets) (track 7, CD1). The shock and abhorrence from Werner Güra in the tenor aria, Und sie steinigten ihn (And they stoned him) (track 9, CD1) is memorable. A true high spot is the sequence of soothing strains from the chorus in Siehe! Wir preisen selig, die erduldet haben (Happy and blest are they who have endured!) (track 11, CD1). Also notable is the remorse and sorrow from Michael Volle in the bass Ďrageí aria Vertilge sie, Herr Zebaoth (Confound them all, Lord Sabbath) (track 12, CD1). Volleís outburst of anger and loathing in Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte (O God, have mercy on me) (track 18, CD1) must also be mentioned. Here one cannot fail to be impressed by the excellent woodwind accompaniment. Another highlight is the bass aria Ich danke dir, Herr, mein Gott! (I praise thee, O Lord, my God!) where Saulís prayer is answered by the mixed chorus.

Section two of Paulus is generally considered to be of reduced dramatic quality and consequently is of rather less interest than the opening part. I should just mention the reverential and moving duets for tenor and bass So sind wir nun Botschafter an Christi Statt (Now we are Ambassadors in the name of Christ) (track 3, CD2) and Denn also hat der Herr geboten (For so hath the Lord himself commanded) (track 9, CD2). Then thereís the dramatic and powerful, extended bass aria from Michael Volle in Ihr Männer, was macht ihr da? (O wherefore do ye these things) (track 14, CD2). Werner Güra in the tenor cavatina, Sei getreu bis in den Tod (Be thou faithful unto death) (track 18, CD2) is impressive. Here I was struck by the superb playing by the soloist in the obbligato cello part. The strength and intensity of the two mighty and compelling final choruses is noteworthy: Sehet, welch eine Liebe uns der Vater erzeiget (See what love hath the Father bestowed on us) (track 21, CD2) and Nicht aber ihm allein, sondern allen (Not only unto him) (track 23, CD2).

Argentinian soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr, who sings both the soprano and alto parts, rises to the tough assignment and proves impressive. Her captivating performance was appropriately reverential, blended with impressive clarity of enunciation and creamy timbre. Güra provides an enthusiastic contribution with his bright and medium weight tones, of a certain Italianate quality. These contrast splendidly with Volleís memorably rich and characterful bass.

Berniusís direction is impressive in every way. The playing of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is never overwhelming but always high on sensitivity; containing an especially moving directness of expression. The sound quality on this SACD, which I played on my standard players, is first class and especially well balanced. I enjoyed the exemplary essay in the booklet from musicologist R. Larry Todd, however, there are several errors in the accompanying liner notes.

With regard to alternative recordings of Paulus I have considerable affection for the 1995 Montreux version under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. The quartet of soloists: Melanie Diener (soprano); Annette Markert (mezzo); James Taylor (tenor) and Matthias Görne (baritone) are joined by the Collegium Vocale Gent; La Chapelle Royale and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées on Harmonia Mundi HMC901584.85.

Another alternative version of Paulus from my collection that I can recommend is the 1994 DvořŠk Hall, Prague performance from the baton of conductor Helmuth Rilling. The talented quartet of soloists is Juliane Banse (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (alto); Michael Schade (tenor); Andreas Schmidt (bass) with the Gšchinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Prager Kammerchor and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Brilliant Classics 99953 c/w Elijah, Op. 70.

It is hard to fault this Carus release of Mendelssohnís Paulus which is a must for any collection of sacred music. I look forward to Frieder Berniusís forthcoming recording of Elijah, Op. 70, also on Carus.

Michael Cookson


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