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Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Symphony No.2 in B flat major, Op.52 Lobgesang [63:05]
Judith Howarth (soprano); Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Bergen Vocal Ensemble
The Danish National Vocal Ensemble/DR
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 23-24 April 2008, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
Texts and translations included
BIS-SACD-1704 [63:05]
 
Experience Classicsonline


Composers have always been urged to write commemorative pieces, but this one –  composed to mark Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 – is a bit more obscure than most. It’s certainly one of Mendelssohn’s least recorded symphonies – ArkivMusic lists 17 versions in all – so this year’s Proms performance under Mark Elder was most welcome. That said, this ‘Hymn of Praise’ is a strange hybrid – the composer called it a ‘Symphony-Cantata on Words from the Holy Bible’ – with a three-movement orchestral Sinfonia and nine movements for orchestra, soloists and/or chorus. And although it’s rarely recorded there are fine versions in bargain sets from Herbert von Karajan (DG 4777581), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 4709462) and Claudio Abbado (DG 4714672).

This new recording is taken from live performances by the Bergen Philharmonic under their principal conductor, Andrew Litton. They are joined by an impressive line-up of soloists, among them the lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien, best known – to me at least – for his Schubert lieder, and two opera singers, Jennifer Larmore and Judith Howarth. The orchestral Sinfonia starts in magisterial style but the first thing one notices is that the acoustic is rather dry and close, presumably the effect of a packed hall, and definition isn’t as sharp as we’ve come to expect from BIS.

What about the performance? It’s adequate, the Maestoso surprisingly lacklustre at times. Still, there is some fleet-footed string playing in the Allegretto, which Litton phrases rather well. The real problem here is the music itself – it lacks the sheer inventiveness and spontaneity of the overtures and later symphonies. It’s too earnest for its own good, an impression confirmed by the rather dour Adagio religioso that follows. Sluggish tempi, uninspired playing and the diffuse recording certainly don’t help.

After such a shaky start I hoped the first chorus and soprano aria, ‘All men, all things, that have life and breath’, would invigorate the performance. After all, this is Mendelssohn in oratorio mode, impassioned, grand. As it happens, I wasn’t disappointed, the chorus’s first entry as splendid as I’ve ever heard it. Howarth is in secure voice too, adding a much-needed lift to the proceedings. Prégardien’s recitative and aria ‘Proclaim it, you who are delivered through the Lord’, is even finer, his voice warmly expressive throughout. Even the orchestra seem more animated and alert in their accompaniment. What a pity, then, that the soloists are set too far back and in danger of being swamped in the climaxes.

Larmore makes her only appearance in the duet and chorus ‘I waited for the Lord and he inclined to me’. This is Mendelssohn at his most gravely beautiful, the soloists borne aloft by some buoyant playing from the Bergen band. The high point of this disc so far – or so I thought, until I heard Prégardien’s aria and recitative ‘The bonds of death had held us’. He sings with operatic intensity here, and will surely send a shiver up your spine with the final line: ‘Watchman, will the night soon pass?’ Wonderful stuff, but is it enough to save the performance as a whole?

Well, there are more good things to come, Howarth suitably radiant in ’The night is departed, the day is come’. The choral singing is bright and incisive – as it is throughout – with a touch of glare in the climaxes; the organ, hitherto discreet, is thrilling at this point. Thankfully, the choral Nun danket (‘Now thank we all our God’) is sung with just the right degree of reverence, the organ underpinning the voices to great effect. Little wonder, listening to this music, that the Victorians loved Mendelssohn so much. Indeed, this could so easily sound overblown, yet Litton and his forces find a simple piety here that’s both satisfying and deeply moving. Special credit to the choruses and the uncredited organist, who really excel themselves.

‘Therefore I sing with my song ever your praise’, is notable for its good vocal blend and security of tone, Prégardien and Howarth ideally paired in this loveliest of duets. But it’s the final chorus ‘You nations, bring the Lord honour and might!’ that hints at the majesty of Paulus and Elijah. One might prefer a weightier choral sound, but when it comes to grandeur there’s little to complain about here. That glorious finale alone deserves the enthusiastic applause that follows.

Even though this isn’t Mendelssohn at his most inspired this symphony merits more praise than it usually gets. True, the Sinfonia can be a trial – it certainly is here – but the composer really comes into his own when writing for soloists and chorus. There is much to enjoy on this disc, but as a performance it’s frustratingly uneven.

Dan Morgan



 

 
 


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