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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Paulus - An oratorio Op 36 (1836) [115:13]
Susan Gritton (soprano); Jean Rigby (mezzo); Barry Banks (tenor); Peter Coleman-Wright (bass);
BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 5 May 2000
text and English translation included
CHANDOS CHAN 10516(2) X [64:23 + 50:50]
Experience Classicsonline

The last time I listened to this work it was with the recent Profil recording under Doris Hagel using period instruments and with soloist more usually found in earlier music. It is obvious that “Paulus” is heavily indebted to Bach’s Passions in such features as the chorales and its overall structure. In that recording the actual sounds were much more obviously related to them than usual. What may be surprising is that this adds to the impact of the work. Paradoxically its individuality becomes more apparent the more the Bach influence is made more explicit.

In contrast the present version is very much “Paulus” as we normally hear it on the rare occasions that it appears in the concert hall. The chorus and orchestra are as good as anyone might reasonably expect in putting forward such an approach, and it is not their fault if the result does sound a little faded in part, even, dare one say it, a little dull. The soloists are generally satisfactory. Jean Rigby and Peter Coleman-Wright are indeed much more than that. Susan Gritton’s tone seems at times somewhat harsh and Barry Banks as recorded here has an obtrusive vibrato and produces an occasional unattractive sound at the end of words. As these are not comments that I would have made about either singer heard live, I can only assume that it must be a result of the recording or the recording venue. Incidentally although this is described in the booklet as a live recording there are no extraneous noises or signs of audience reaction whatever.

Overall therefore I have to regard this as a solid if somewhat uncharismatic version of a work which does not deserve its present eclipse. It is perhaps a pity that it is “Paulus” rather than “St Paul”, as a performance in English would have set this recording apart from others. However as the usual translation, even if approved by the composer, is far from perfect and involves much rewriting of notes and rhythms this might have been interesting rather than illuminating. This recording therefore has to take its place alongside some formidable competition from such conductors as Rilling, Herreweghe and Frühbeck de Burgos, all of whose performances have stronger claims on the listener. Whereas “Elijah” or “Elias” seems almost performer-proof, at least in Part 1, “Paulus” is a work where the collector needs to exercise especial care in choosing a sympathetic recording. For me - and I would stress that this is very much a personal view, this version is not it, despite some undoubted virtues in recording and performance.

John Sheppard


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