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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809Ė1847)
Aus tiefer Not, Op. 23 No 1. (1830) [12.36]
Ave Maria, Op. 23 No 2. (1839) [6.29]
Mitten wir in Leben sind, Op. 23 No 3. (1830) [7.47]
Hör mein Bitten (1844) [10.54
Warum toben die Heiden, Op. 78 No 1. (1843/44) [7.45]
Richte mich Gott, Op. 78 No 2. (1843/44) [3.37]
Zum Abendsegen [2.41]
Kyrie Eleison (1846) [1.25]
Heilig, Heilig (1846) [1.57]
Ehre sei Gott (1846) [1.57]
Verleih uns Frieden (1830) [4.44]
Hear my prayer (1844) [5.27]
Quintin Beer (treble)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
John Robinson (organ)
Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge/David Hill
rec. 8-9, 11 July 2005, St. Johnís College Chapel, Cambridge
HYPERION CDA67558 [71.35]
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Twenty-one-year old Mendelssohn arrived in Rome in November 1830 and one of his first visits to the Vatican City inspired him to write his Three Sacred Choruses, Op. 23. These effectively encapsulate the concerns which Mendelssohn was to re-visit in most of his subsequent choral music: the veneration of Bach and the use of Bachís motet structures, use of chorales and neo-baroque contrapuntal movements mixed with movements of pure melodic beauty; flexibility as to language and Christian denomination.

Mendelssohnís family were of Jewish origin and had converted to Protestantism, but Mendelssohn was not dogmatic when it came to writing sacred music. His oeuvre includes Latin settings, German settings suitable for use in Lutheran Germany as well as a group of settings suitable for use in the Anglican Church. These Op. 23 choruses, for instance, set two German Psalms and a Latin Ave Maria.

The Op. 23 choruses are the first items on a new disc of Mendelssohnís sacred choral music from David Hill and the Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge. The first chorus, Aus Tiefer Not, uses the multi-movement texture of Bachís motets. Mendelssohn opens with a chorale followed by a fugue. Only in the central movement, with its tenor solo, does he relax and give us music reminiscent of one of his songs without words. The second motet of the group, Ave Maria, is justly famous for its lyric beauty and the third Mitten wir in Leben sind for its austerity and emotive power.

The archaic nature of much of this material seems to suit the tone quality and performance style of St. Johnís. David Hill brings all of his experience with earlier repertoire to bear on Mendelssohnís Bach-inspired music. He is not particularly interventionist and dynamics are often terraced, with crisp, rhythmic articulation. The up-front nature of the choirís sound tends to suit the more archaic pieces. But in the more melodic sections, I wondered whether the performance could have been more relaxed.

Mendelssohnís choral music is an important link between that of his classical predecessors and Brahmsís substantial oeuvre of sacred music. And both revered Bach and used his influence in their choral music. But Mendelssohnís sacred choral music is generally more admired than loved, with only one or two pieces gaining regular currency, notably the Op. 23 Ave Maria and his setting of an adaptation of Psalm 55, Hör mein Bitten, better known in its English version Hear my prayer

St. Johnís follow the Op. 23 choruses with Hör mein Bitten sung in German. The soloist, Quintin Beer, has an attractive, forward sound and the performance is quite robust. It is here that things start to get interesting, because Richard Marlow and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge have also issued their own disc of Mendelssohnís sacred choral music on the Chandos label, using women on the upper two lines.

Marlow and Trinity include the English version, Hear my prayer, on their disc and the Trinity sopranos manage to give St. Johnís trebles a run for their money in the ethereal stakes. But Marlow takes a more romantic view of Mendelssohnís music than Hill. Marlow explicitly shapes the music, getting the choir to produce an attractive romantic blend. In Hear my prayer Trinityís soprano soloist, Rachel Bennett, is softer toned and better phrased than Quintin Beer, but Beerís voice is simply more thrilling.

In all of the pieces that these discs have in common, Marlow and his choir veer towards a more romantic, shapely interpretation; quite often their approach feels lighter than Hill and St. Johnís.

The less romantic sound of St. Johnís choir is appealing nonetheless. In the two choruses from Mendelssohnís Op. 78, Warum toben die Heiden and Richte mich, Gott, St. Johnís really point up the archaic nature of Mendelssohnís inspiration. But though these choruses are constructed in a similar manner to Op. 23, no. 1, they were written thirteen years later and are amongst his most ambitious. In them he manages to do much more than copy his baroque models, using impressive contrasts of blocks of vocal colour, shifting the tonal balance from 8-part chorus to individual voices.

Trinity on their disc include all three of these choruses and there is much to commend Marlowís more romantic approach and the beautifully shaped phrases of the choir. I did think it a shame that St. Johns could not have found time and space to record the third of the motets.

In 1846 Mendelssohn intended to produce a sequence of liturgical movements for use by the choir of the Domkirche in Berlin. He never finished them and we have just the Kyrie, Heilig (Sanctus) and Ehre Sei Gott (Gloria). They are masterly pieces and deserve to be better known. St. Johns give a fine performance of them, one which brings out the echoes of earlier masses in the music.

Rather neatly - and perhaps bravely - St. Johnís conclude with the English version of the final section of Hör mein Bitten, Hear my prayer. The soloist is again Quintin Beer and he sings eloquently whilst not eclipsing previous trebles in this piece.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Trinity and St. Johnís discs have appeared at the same time. They have significant number of works in common. Given Mendelssohnís ample number of sacred pieces it is a shame that duplication could not have been reduced or avoided, but if you look at the recording dates, these two discs were recorded five years apart with the Trinity disc being recorded in 2000 and sitting in the Chandos vaults until now.

Hillís approach is pretty different to Marlowís, so in an ideal world we would want to buy both. If the choice is just one then your attitude to boys versus women on the top line (and counter-tenors versus mezzo-sopranos on the second line) might have a bearing on the issue. On the basis of repertoire, I think I probably veer towards the Trinity disc, particularly as they include all of the Op. 78 pieces as well as the Op. 79 Sechs Sprüche.

But, if the repertoire on this disc appeals, you wonít go far wrong. This might not be quite vintage St. Johnís College Choir but the set is impressive nonetheless and there is something quite thrilling, hearing the trebles singing Mendelssohnís lovely vocal lines.

Robert Hugill


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