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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) op.60* [35:35], Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Propserous Voyage) op.27 [13:06], Ruy Blas op.95 [07:38], Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusine) op.32 [11:33], Die Hebriden (The Hebrides) op.26 [10:08]
Juan Oncina (tenor)*, Giovanna Fioroni (mezzo-soprano)*, Robert Amis El Hage (bass)*,
Coro* e Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Peter Maag
Recorded live on 4th February 1972*, 19th October 1979 in the Auditorium della RAI di Torino, Italy
ARTS ARCHIVES 43042-2 [78:21]


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I see that it was in 1970 that, as an impressionable schoolboy, I bought second-hand the vocal score to a work by Mendelssohn that I had never heard of, namely “Die erste Walpurgisnacht”, and was soon blinking with astonishment at the pagan choruses at the heart of it. Here was a Mendelssohn I had never imagined and I was not surprised to read that Berlioz, who knew a thing or two about witches’ Sabbaths, was mightily impressed. How I longed to hear a performance, but there were no discs available back then. A few years later I caught an unduly hasty broadcast under Harry Blech and was left wondering if my enthusiasm was misplaced.

Since then it has been recorded several times over, of course. The conductor of the present record, Peter Maag (1919-2001), is particularly associated in many people’s minds with Mendelssohn since he recorded a version of the Scottish Symphony plus The Hebrides with the LSO for Decca in 1960 which was for long a prime recommendation. Unfortunately, after that brilliant beginning Maag rather drifted out of the public view, or at least that of the British public. He would crop up from time to time on minor labels and with minor orchestras and just once in a while Decca would remember him – notably for Luisa Miller – but it was only at the end of his life that Arts Archives made a determined attempt to capture his interpretations for posterity in a systematic manner, including a well-received Beethoven cycle and a cycle of Mendelssohn Symphonies.

Thwarted by Maag’s death, they have been busy examining the RAI archives, and since I have recently cast doubts on the way RAI material has been issued by certain companies (who have taken it off the air, I suspect), I should add at once that this issue carries the emblem RAI TRADE, so it is an official mastering of the original tapes, producing warm, rich and lively stereo recordings in complete contrast with the often dry sound which used to emerge from this orchestra on its Cetra recordings of the 1950s.

Maag, in fact, regularly “did the rounds” of the RAI’s (then) four orchestras, so a vast range of material is potentially available (as it surely must be from many Swiss, Austrian and German radio archives). In 1991 he conducted a complete cycle of the Mozart Symphonies in Rome, and he was frequently called upon whenever a rare choral work by Schubert or Schumann was to have an outing. To tell the truth, he was not always much more than a safe pair of hands and could be pretty heavy-handed in his last decade. So I hope Arts Archives will make a discriminating choice; they certainly seem to have done so here, for these Mendelssohn performances are all characterised by a whole-hearted involvement as well as, considering the live provenance and the reputation of the orchestra as not exactly the world’s finest, a remarkably fine orchestral response.

Sheer precision, in the Szell/Cleveland manner, was never really on Maag’s agenda. Extremely proud of his brief experience as an assistant to Furtwängler, he sought out the spirit of the music, and the four overtures here are reminiscent of those on an early Decca by the VPO under Carl Schuricht, who likewise didn’t worry about the odd split chord when the spirit was right. Mendelssohn in Maag’s hands is a fully romantic composer who sings and exalts no less than his friend Schumann. If you want spick-and-span, half-pint-size, well-scrubbed Mendelssohn, you will have to go elsewhere, and I’m afraid you will find what you want all too easily. For myself I rejoice in a “Ruy Blas” with the drama of “Egmont” and the singing quality of “La Forza del Destino” (what a superb piece this is), in a “Hebrides” which charts the swell, the calm and the turmoil of the ocean, in a “Schöne Melusine” which begins and ends in liquid poetry and gets up a full head of steam in between, and a “Calm Sea” which nonetheless suggests the swell which is always present in an ocean even when the wind has dropped. “Calm” it may be, “dead” it is not.

But above all I rejoice in “Die erste Walpurgisnacht”. Notice how, after the incandescent opening, Maag relaxes into the woodland poetry that follows with great freedom but perfect judgement. The “witches’ sabbath” parts are fiery without being overdriven and the concluding choruses have great breadth but no heaviness. Of the soloists, Robert Amis El Hage is fine (he has the most important solos) while Juan Oncina, by now something of a veteran (he took part in Gui’s Glyndebourne recordings of La Cenerentola and Le Comte Ory in the 1950s, as well as singing Fernando in Gui’s RAI Così fan Tutte of 1959), still manages an easy emission on his top As. Giovanna Fioroni has a plummy contralto, but she has very little to do.

The issue comes with a useful note in four languages, plus the original text of the choral work with an English translation, so all things considered this is a fine tribute to both composer and conductor. Let us hope that Arts Archives have more in store from this source.

Christopher Howell



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