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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Antigone, Op. 55 (1841) [61:08]
Speakers: Angela Winkler (Antigone); Joachim Kuntzsch (Creon); Michael Ransburg; Julia Nachtmann; Manfred Bittner (bass-baritone)
Male voices of the Kammerchor Stuttgart and Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. 5 September 2004, Europäisches Musikfest, Liederhalle, Stuttgart, Germany. DDD
English translations of text and English essay provided.
CARUS 83.224 [61:08] 
Experience Classicsonline

Of all the masterpieces of the classical and modern world - and I know nearly all of them and you should and can - Antigone seems to me the most magnificent work of art of this kind.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 

Carus, part of the Stuttgart music publisher Carus-Verlag, has been one of the principal standard-bearers in this the bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth. During this anniversary year I am hoping to travel to Berlin myself for a Mendelssohn pilgrimage in two weeks time.

Earlier this year I reviewed Frieder Bernius’s highly impressive 12 volume survey of Mendelssohn’s sacred choral music on Carus. A tremendous artistic and technical achievement for all those concerned with such a mammoth recording project that ran from 1983 continuing right through until 2008. Currently each of the 12 volumes in the series will have to be bought individually. Carus inform me that a boxed set of the complete series is planned for three or four years time (see review). 

This latest release from Carus surveys one of Mendelssohn’s lesser known scores - his Antigone, Op. 55, incidental music to the tragic play by Sophocles the ancient Greek playwright. Frieder Bernius recorded the score in September 2004 at a live performance from the Europäisches Musikfest at Liederhalle, Stuttgart.

Antigone was a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia who had only recently succeeded to the throne in 1840 after the death of his father Frederick William III. Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music in 1841 in collaboration with Ludwig Tieck the celebrated playwright. Tieck served at the Prussian court in Berlin as the King’s reader and was leading a revival in classical dramas. Mendelssohn and Tieck had available to them a faithful German translation of Antigone by Johann Jakob Christian Donner. For the project Mendelssohn consulted his friend Eduard Devrient and enlisted the assistance of classical scholar Philipp August Böckh to undertake supervision. The incidental music was staged in private for the King at the Potsdam Palace in 1841 with an enthusiastically received public performance given at the Berlin Schauspielhaus a year later. It seems that the Antigone music was widely performed in many European countries throughout the nineteenth century. Considering the eminence of its composer Antigone today languishes in relative obscurity.

A very brief outline of the plot to Sophocles’ Greek tragedy might help: Antigone is the daughter from the incestuous marriage between King Oedipus of Thebes and his mother Jocasta. King Regent Creon decrees that Antigone’s brother the traitor Polynices is not to be buried and his corpse is to rot. Antigone defies the order, is captured and sentenced to be buried alive. Antigone’s downfall precipitates the suicides of her betrothed Haemon who is Creon’s son and Eurydice, Creon’s wife. A humbled Creon changes his mind but it is all too late. 

Mendelssohn opens the score to Antigone with an orchestral introduction marked Andante maestoso. In this overture the Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius are in impressive form. The valiant opening measures soon give way to music of an elegiac quality. This is really the only extended piece of solo orchestral music in the whole disc. The remainder of the score, divided into 7 sections, is text that is either sung with orchestral accompaniment or spoken by actors. 

The four narrators are a splendid group. Angela Winkler as Antigone, Joachim Kuntzsch as Creon, Michael Ransburg and Julia Nachtmann all deliver clear and precise enunciation. With regard to the casting I feel that the overall performance might have benefited from a greater contrast between the voices of Angela Winkler and Julia Nachtmann.

I was struck by the moving and expressive tones of bass-baritone Manfred Bittner displaying appealing timbre and impressive diction in his aria “Blest are those whose days have not tasted evil.” The male voices of the Kammerchor Stuttgart have the lion’s share of the work in this chorus-laden score. They respond with passion, commitment and significant adeptness. I especially enjoyed their rendition of the choruses “Shaft of the sun” and “God of many names.” A highlight of the score is the wonderfully fresh and vibrant singing of the scene for two tenors and two basses “Love, the unconquered in battle.”

The excellent sound quality is close, clear and well balanced. I was slightly troubled by the noticeable reverberation during the narrations. With regard to the annotation it is not always easy to identify which speaker is doing the narration. The marvellous essay in the booklet notes is penned by renowned Mendelssohn authority and biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd.

This is a splendidly performed and recorded release for those interested in rare Mendelssohn repertoire.

Michael Cookson



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