Magnificat in D major (1822) [26.13]
String Symphony no. 12 (1822) [4.52]
Ave Maria Op.23 no. 2 (1830) [6.55]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D major (1723/8) [27.54]
Yale Voxtet; Yale Schola Cantorum; Yale Collegium Players/Stephen Carrington
rec. Wolsely Hall, Yale University, Connecticut, USA, 3 May-3 September 2008
NAXOS 8.572161 [65.56] 

Mendelssohn's Magnificat in D was written in 1822 when the composer was 13. Three years previously he had joined the Berlin Singakademie which had been founded by Carl Friedrich Zelter. It was under Zelter's influence that the young prodigy studied music by pre-classical composers. So his writing of the Magnificat was influenced by the settings of the same text by J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach.

But this was no arcane piece of revivalism; Mendelssohn wrote for a contemporary orchestra including clarinets and horns, and without the high trumpet parts found in Bach. But Mendelssohn's writing was pretty florid - Zelter sent the original setting of Quia respexit back. There seems to be uncertainty as to whether Zelter's Singakademie ever sang the Magnificat and the work was excluded from the first complete edition of the composer's works assembled in 1847.

The delightful Magnificat calls for the chorus to sing vocal lines which were conceived along lively baroque lines and were probably unsuited to the Singakademie's three hundred members - though they did sing other baroque pieces.

Here it is performed by the 24 voice Yale Schola Cantorum, accompanied by the Yale Collegium Players. A very good job they make of it too, under Simon Carrington's lively direction. Mendelssohn's teenage pieces, with some notable exceptions, still have not gained full exposure so that it is a pleasure to hear this committed and vivid performance.

Though there are nods in the direction of Bach, the sound-world is very much Mendelssohn's own, with some lovely moments such as the beautiful Quia respexit for soprano soloist (Melenie Scafide Russell) and chorus. Scafide and baritone David Dong-Geun Kim have a solo each in the piece. The remainder is set for chorus and orchestra, with the exception of Deposuit potentes set for the trio of soprano (Cecilia Leitner), mezzo-soprano (Laura C. Atkinson) and baritone (Jason P. Steigerwalt).

The Mendelssohn Magnificat is followed by a performance of the first movement of his 12th String Symphony, a piece which showcases Mendelssohn's contrapuntal and fugal abilities. This movement is almost contemporaneous with the Magnificat

The final Mendelssohn piece on the disc is his Ave Maria of 1830, one of his final pieces of Latin church music and a piece in which he looks back to the baroque poly-choral tradition as well as continuing the grand choral sound which he used in such pieces as Elijah.

If the performers had filled the remainder of the disc with music by Mendelssohn then I would have had no qualms about recommending this disc. As it is, they have decided to perform Bach's Magnficat. The performance is neither a modern, period practice one, nor a re-creation of the sort of performance which Mendelssohn might have heard in his lifetime. Instead, they give us a very creditable modern instrument account, which is crisp, lively and perfectly creditable. The soloists all come from the Yale Voxted and the performance showcases six of them (Melanie Scafide Russell, Cecilia Leitner, Jay Carter, Birger Radde, Michael Sansoni, Jason P Steigerwalt).

You would not buy this disc for the performance of Bach's Magnificat in D major. In a crowded field, there are many recordings of the Bach, both period and modern instrument which are finer than this. That said, the young graduate performers acquit themselves perfectly creditably. Certainly buy it if you are interested in early Mendelssohn. His Magnificat is strongly performed and the Bach is perfectly acceptable as a companion.

Robert Hugill