“Of all the masterpieces of the classical and modern world - and I know nearly
all of them and you should and can - Antigone seems to me the most magnificent
work of art of this kind.
” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Carus, part of the Stuttgart music publisher Carus-Verlag, has been one of the
principal standard-bearers in this the bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s
birth. During this anniversary year I am hoping to travel to Berlin myself for
a Mendelssohn pilgrimage in two weeks time.
Earlier this year I reviewed Frieder Bernius’s highly impressive 12 volume
survey of Mendelssohn’s sacred choral music on Carus. A tremendous artistic
and technical achievement for all those concerned with such a mammoth recording
project that ran from 1983 continuing right through until 2008. Currently each
of the 12 volumes in the series will have to be bought individually. Carus inform
me that a boxed set of the complete series is planned for three or four years
This latest release from Carus surveys one of Mendelssohn’s lesser known
scores - his Antigone,
Op. 55, incidental music to the tragic play by
Sophocles the ancient Greek playwright. Frieder Bernius recorded the score in
September 2004 at a live performance from the Europäisches Musikfest at
was a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia who
had only recently succeeded to the throne in 1840 after the death of his father
Frederick William III. Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music in 1841 in collaboration
with Ludwig Tieck the celebrated playwright. Tieck served at the Prussian court
in Berlin as the King’s reader and was leading a revival in classical dramas.
Mendelssohn and Tieck had available to them a faithful German translation of Antigone
Johann Jakob Christian Donner. For the project Mendelssohn consulted his friend
Eduard Devrient and enlisted the assistance of classical scholar Philipp August
Böckh to undertake supervision. The incidental music was staged in private
for the King at the Potsdam Palace in 1841 with an enthusiastically received
public performance given at the Berlin Schauspielhaus a year later. It seems
that the Antigone
music was widely performed in many European countries
throughout the nineteenth century. Considering the eminence of its composer Antigone
languishes in relative obscurity.
A very brief outline of the plot to Sophocles’ Greek tragedy might help:
Antigone is the daughter from the incestuous marriage between King Oedipus of
Thebes and his mother Jocasta. King Regent Creon decrees that Antigone’s
brother the traitor Polynices is not to be buried and his corpse is to rot. Antigone
defies the order, is captured and sentenced to be buried alive. Antigone’s
downfall precipitates the suicides of her betrothed Haemon who is Creon’s
son and Eurydice, Creon’s wife. A humbled Creon changes his mind but it
is all too late.
Mendelssohn opens the score to Antigone
with an orchestral introduction
marked Andante maestoso
. In this overture the Klassische Philharmonie
Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius are in impressive form. The valiant opening measures
soon give way to music of an elegiac quality. This is really the only extended
piece of solo orchestral music in the whole disc. The remainder of the score,
divided into 7 sections, is text that is either sung with orchestral accompaniment
or spoken by actors.
The four narrators are a splendid group. Angela Winkler as Antigone, Joachim
Kuntzsch as Creon, Michael Ransburg and Julia Nachtmann all deliver clear and
precise enunciation. With regard to the casting I feel that the overall performance
might have benefited from a greater contrast between the voices of Angela Winkler
and Julia Nachtmann.
I was struck by the moving and expressive tones of bass-baritone Manfred Bittner
displaying appealing timbre and impressive diction in his aria “Blest
are those whose days have not tasted evil
.” The male voices of the
Kammerchor Stuttgart have the lion’s share of the work in this chorus-laden
score. They respond with passion, commitment and significant adeptness. I especially
enjoyed their rendition of the choruses “Shaft of the sun
” and “God
of many names
.” A highlight of the score is the wonderfully fresh and
vibrant singing of the scene for two tenors and two basses “Love, the
unconquered in battle
The excellent sound quality is close, clear and well balanced. I was slightly
troubled by the noticeable reverberation during the narrations. With regard to
the annotation it is not always easy to identify which speaker is doing the narration.
The marvellous essay in the booklet notes is penned by renowned Mendelssohn authority
and biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd.
This is a splendidly performed and recorded release for those interested in rare