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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Symphony No.2 in B flat major, Op.52 Hymn of Praise (1840)
Barbara Bonney, Edith Wiens (sopranos), Peter Schreier (tenor)
Michael Schoenheit (organ)
Leipzig Radio Choir
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
Recorded in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, September 1988 DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 60156 2 [58’32]



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This is a lithe, supple and fleet-of-foot reading of one of Mendelssohn’s lesser known but highly rewarding works. It has been available before, its last incarnation being Warner’s super-budget Ultima double pack, where it was coupled with the probably even lesser known symphonies 1 and 5. It has now been split and reissued, still at super budget, and demands attention from the collector.

The piece itself stands in the all-pervading shadow of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. It starts with what amounts to a 20-minute, three movement symphony, then has a long final section sub-divided into choruses and solos from tenor and two sopranos which effectively form a cantata finale. It does not reach the Beethovenian heights of grandeur or sublimity, but it does possess many wonderful examples of Mendelssohn’s unforced lyricism, vitality and elegance, and as such makes for a rewarding listening experience.

Masur’s briskness of tempo is evident from the opening, where his no-nonsense phrasing immediately sets the tone for a fresh, crisp reading. This was Mendelssohn’s orchestra, and the players are no doubt aware of their heritage, producing luminous string tone and clean woodwind textures that are a constant delight. By this stage (the late 1980s), period practices were beginning to filter into some mainstream performances, and I feel sure Masur is adopting some of those features. The main allegro of the opening sinfonia (as Mendelssohn calls it) is fast and refreshing, never hurried or clumsy, with the attack from the players giving the music an inner vitality without losing the charm.

Of the two sopranos, I found Edith Wiens to be a touch shrill and strained for my liking, but fortunately the bulk of the solos are taken by a radiant Barbara Bonney, whose mellifluous phrasing and sweetness of tone are perfect here. When the two sopranos join forces, as in ‘I waited for the Lord’ (track 9), Wiens softens her voice a touch and the two become well matched, in fact positively angelic. Schreier is also a tad strained on some of the higher tessituras, but his command of the text and intelligent phrasing more than compensate.

The choir’s contribution is outstanding, with a beautifully homogeneous tone and athletic response to Masur’s brisk speeds. The big, dramatic fugal chorus ‘The Night is Departing’ (track 11) is particularly thrilling, and one notices here the contribution of the organ, which adds notably to the orchestral textures.

The recording is digital and has good balance and focus. The chorus at first appears slightly recessed and distant, but one easily adjusts and it does not mar enjoyment in any way. Soloists are well caught and the generally warm sound is easy on the ear.

There are reasonable background notes and full texts and translations, something to applaud Warner for in this super budget category. There is also generous cueing of the many individual sections. Competition is strong, but this is a highly desirable version of a rewarding piece.

Tony Haywood



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