Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Magnificat in D [26:13]
Symphony for strings No 12 in g minor [4:52]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D (BWV 243) [27:54]
Ave Maria, op. 23,2 [6:55]
Yale Voxtet; Yale Schola Cantorum; Yale Collegium Players/Simon
rec. May, September 2008, Woolsey Hall, Yale University, CT, USA
NAXOS 8.572161 [65:56]
The Magnificat belongs to the core liturgy of
the Christian churches. In the ancient church of the West
it became part of
the Vespers. Martin Luther did not see any reason to get rid
of it after his Reformation. This explains that the Magnificat
was still part of the Vespers in Lutheran Germany in Bach's
time. As even the use of Latin wasn't completely abandoned
was especially used on high feasts Bach wrote his Magnificat
on the traditional Latin text rather than in the vernacular.
Two versions of this Magnificat have been preserved. The first
is in E flat (BWV 243a) and was composed to be sung on Christmas
Day of 1723. To that end it contained four interpolations of
Christmas hymns in German. The version most performed today,
and also recorded here, is the result of a reworking which
probably took place between 1732 and 1735. The interpolations
and the work was transposed to D major, apart from various
other changes in texture and scoring. In this form it could
performed in other periods of the church year.
This disc opens with a much later setting of the same text.
It is an established fact that Mendelssohn was interested in
and influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach; most people immediately
think of his revival of the St Matthew Passion. But Mendelssohn
also knew Bach's Magnificat, and it is interesting to note that
he also was acquainted with the setting Bach's son Carl Philipp
Emanuel composed in 1749 which he later used for his application
for the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig after his father's death.
Mendelssohn composed his Magnificat in 1822 when he was a member
of the Berlin Singakademie, directed by his teacher Carl Friedrich
Zelter. Zelter was a great admirer not only of Bach senior but
also of Carl Philipp Emanuel. And it is through him that Mendelssohn
became acquainted with the string symphonies of Bach's son (today
catalogued as Wq 182). On this disc we hear the first movement
of Mendelssohn's own string symphony No. 12, which is reflecting
the influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Mendelssohn's Magnificat is a work which combines the tradition
as embodied by Johann Sebastian Bach, in particular in the use
of counterpoint, and contemporary fashion, especially in the
scoring. But if one hears this piece one is struck by the predominantly
baroque character of its texture. For instance, the opening
movement shows a very baroque agility in the vocal parts which
is quite unusual for a composition of this time. It is a choral
piece but contains some short solo passages. At the instigation
of his teacher Mendelssohn has reworked the second section,
Quia respexit, but in this recording we hear the original
version. It is set for soprano, choir and orchestra, with obbligato
parts for viola and bassoon. In the third section, Et misericordia,
Mendelssohn made extensive use of counterpoint. 'Fecit potentiam'
is set as a solo for bass, 'Deposuit potentes' is for
a trio of soprano, mezzo and tenor and the work is concluded
with the doxology, the second part of which, Sicut erat,
is a fugue.
The Yale Schola Cantorum and the Yale Collegium Players give
a very good performance of the piece. The solo parts are sung
by the members of the Yale Voxtet, who are all members of the
choir as well. This results in a strong stylistic unity in the
performance. The solos are sung pretty well, although both the
soprano Melanie Scafide Russell and the bass David Dong-Geun
Kim are a shade too weak at the lower end of their tessitura.
I am very pleased by the singing of the choir which produces
a nice and transparent sound and expresses the text very well.
After the first movement of Mendelssohn's string symphony No.
12 we hear the well-known setting of the Magnificat by Bach.
The opening chorus is performed in a very vivacious manner,
with a beautiful sound and good dynamic accents. In 'Et exsultavit
spiritus sanctus' the rhythmic pulse is given much attention.
The soprano Cecilia Leitner gives a good performance, but technically
it sounds a bit precarious. She realises the long melismatic
passages, but only just. 'Quia respexit' is excellent,
with beautiful singing of the soprano Melanie Scafide Russell
and a very good solo by Aaron Hill on the oboe. 'Omnes generationes'
shows the choir's great flexibility and again there are some
good dynamic accents.
'Quia fecit mihi magna' is well sung by the bass Jason
P. Steigerwalt, but it could have been a bit more powerful.
'Et misericordia tua' is a duet of alto and tenor, and
Jay Carter and Michael Samsoni match well, although at the start
Carter is a little too dominant. Samsoni could have done with
a little less vibrato. The rallentando at the end of the vocal
part seems a bit exaggerated. A little romantic outpouring,
perhaps? In 'Fecit potentiam' we hear excellent textual
expression from the choir. 'Deposuit potentes' is a bit
too slow; the tenor Birger Radde sings well, but as a whole
this aria is a little too bland. In 'Esurientes implevit
bonis' Jay Carter gives a very good account of his part,
the transverse flutes articulate in a truly speechlike manner
and the realisation of the rhythmic pulse is outstanding. The
closing chord should be played more forte, though, as it depicts
the rich being kicked away. In 'Suscepit Israel' the
two sopranos and the tutti blend nicely which makes it one of
the best parts of this performance. The 'Sicut locutus'
is a little too slow, but the closing 'Gloria patri'
is given a splendid performance; it is just a shame a closing
chord is held too long.
The disc ends with one of the last compositions by Mendelssohn
on a Latin text. It is a setting of the text of the Ave Maria,
and again we hear Mendelssohn's affection for the tradition,
as he divides the eight voices - tutti and soli - into two choirs.
The motet opens with a solo for tenor, beautifully sung here
by Birger Radde. The second section is dominated by the choir.
After the Amen we return to the first section, but it
is no strict da capo as the texture is somewhat different.
This motet is often performed with organ, but here we hear the
original scoring of clarinets, bassoons and bass.
This disc is attractive for a number of reasons. First of all,
Mendelssohn's Magnificat is hardly known and the original
scoring of the Ave Maria is also pretty rare. Secondly,
the combination of the settings of the Magnificat by
Johann Sebastian Bach and Mendelssohn is interesting and shows
the way Bach influenced the young Felix. Lastly, the performances
make this disc a winner. I am not saying that this reading of
Bach's Magnificat is the best available as there is some
stiff competition from excellent ensembles. I have made several
critical remarks about the performance, but that takes nothing
away from my admiration for what the ensembles and their soloists
have done here. They even use the correct German pronunciation
of the Latin text, something more renowned performers don't
In short, I am happy about this disc and shall return to it
in the time to come. If you purchase it I am sure you will share
Johan van Veen