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
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