Mendelssohn wrote a significant amount of sacred music during
his life, covering a time span from 1821 - when he was 12 -
to the year of his death. This boxed set covers just about all
of it in 8 CDs, all recorded by the Chamber Choir of Europe
under Nicol Matt.
Listening to these discs I was struck by how certain influences
seem to recur in the music: renaissance polyphony, the chorale
and J.S. Bach. Though the music covers a wide variety of sacred
genres, it is the chorale that predominates and Latin church
music is relatively sparse; Mendelssohn wrote no full blown
He was writing sacred music at a time of great change, when
the role of music within the Latin liturgy was being questioned.
Mendelssohn was dismissive of the neo-Palestrinian music written
by the Cecilian movement and seems to have been most comfortable
within the world of the Lutheran liturgy where Bach was the
major influence. That is not to say that there are not some
Latin gems as well.
Disc 1 opens with some of the most vivid music here, the five
psalm cantatas. These works for choir and orchestra were
written between 1830 and 1843 with many receiving performances
in Leipzig. The influence of Mendelssohnís oratorio Elijah
lies heavy over these, and they do sound rather like sketches
for the oratorio. Simply, I canít understand why these pieces
are not better known and in use by choral societies.
CD 2 contains the 8 chorale cantatas, written between
1828 and 1832 - and thus mostly earlier than the psalm cantatas
- though Mendelssohn actually only published one. These are
seriously Bach-inspired pieces, mixing chorales with arias and
solo moments. There are some well wrought, vigorous fugues but
much of the choral writing is far more homophonically chorale-based
with vigorous orchestral accompaniment. I have to confess that,
though these pieces are nicely constructed, I did rather tire
of the chorale.
We begin the third CD with a rather curious piece, Hymn,
3 Sacred Songs and Fugue, Op. 96, though in fact the first
three movements had a separate life. By the last movement the
hymn/song structure is beginning to pall. The final movement
provides welcome relief as it turns out to be Hear my prayer
(here Hor mein Bitten) with a nice soprano solo from
This is followed by an early Kyrie, first performed in
Berlin in 1825; an interesting relief from the chorales with
fully worked out polyphony and dramatic structure. I rather
wished that we could have heard the rest of the mass. With this
movement, we virtually say goodbye to any orchestral accompaniment,
nearly all the remaining pieces in the set being unaccompanied
or having organ accompaniment - or in one case, cello and double
With Lauda Sion we get to one of Mendelssohnís mature
masterpieces, a rare Latin setting. A finely structured multi-movement
work with a mixture of choral, solo soprano and solo quartet
movements. This disc concludes with the early Latin motet Tu
CD 4 opens with another early work, the Magnificat from
1822. It is rather grand with orchestral accompaniment. Itís
attractively melodic but it does sound rather early and reliant
on earlier models. The 1822 Gloria is similarly creditable
but I couldnít really work up too much enthusiasm - though bear
in mind that Mendelssohn was only 13 when this was written Ė
a stupendous achievement.
With the 6 Anthems Op. 79 for double choir we get the
real deal: one of Mendelssohnís late choral masterpieces. These
six anthems are a cycle around the churchís year, written separately
and first performed together in Berlin in 1846. These mix Mendelssohnís
interest in Bachian motet structures with a later Romantic sensibility
to create something quite distinctive.
Mendelssohnís youthful study in the manner of Venetian multi-choir
pieces, Hora Est, starts the fifth disc. This work for
four choirs is a brilliant tour-de-force. Mendelssohnís
writing is more sober, with less ťlan than his models, but the
piece works superbly, and I can testify, from personal experience,
that it is great to sing and works well in live performance.
The four-part Te Deum from 1832 was first performed in
London, one of a group of works on these discs which have British
origins and could reasonably have been performed in English.
The brilliant Ave Maria for eight-part choir was published
with two other German language pieces as Op. 23 though on these
discs the works are separated. The Ave Maria was first
performed in Bonn in 1830.
Another Te Deum, this time in eight parts, was written
a few years earlier than the four-part one; it is a substantial
work with a lot of solo writing and some substantial fugal choruses.
On this disc some of the strains of recording such a huge amount
of material on a tight budget rather show. The solo performances
are a little variable and some passages seem uncertain and smudged.
The Deutsche Liturgie, comprising a Kyrie, Gloria and
Sanctus, was suitable for use in the Lutheran church; it is
a late work, compact but stirring and striking.
CD 6 opens with the two German language pieces from Op. 23 -
companions to the Ave Maria. These manage to transcend
their rather schematic construction. Aus tiefer Not is
a multi-movement work with a flexible sequence of chorale, fugue
and arias whereas Mitten wir im Leben is a substantial
single movement work. Mitten wir im Leben feels like
mature Mendelssohn - he was 19 when he wrote it - with a flexible
structure full of Bachian polyphony.
With Jesus meini Zuversicht (from 1824) we are back to
the chorale, aria, fugue structure and there were some smudgy
passages in both the choral and solo work. Thankfully the disc
closes with two masterpieces from Mendelssohnís late maturity,
the Three Motets Op. 69 and the Three Psalms Op.
78. The Three Motets are in fact Mendelssohnís Evening
Service (Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis and Jubilate) written for
the UK but published with a German text. These are the real
thing, as are the Three Psalms, Op. 78. These latter
pieces are some of Mendelssohnís final sacred music - and amongst
his final works altogether. They show his mastery of the form,
in his own distinctive manner.
The performances from Matt and the Chamber Choir of Europe are
lyrical and flexible; perhaps tone is a little thin at times
but they are more than creditable.
After the joys of late Mendelssohn, on CD 7 we are back into
the world of the chorale; with the exception of the Kyrie
in C and Jube Domine the remaining works on this
disc (Choralharmonisierungen, Cantique pour líEglise
Wallone, 2 English Psalms, 7 Psalms and 13
Psalm Motets) are harmonised chorales and, apart from some
of the 13 Psalm motets, harmonised homophonically. This
is a disc for completists only and not one I shall return to
With the final disc we move to works for female voices and for
male voices. The disc starts with Mendelssohnís Three Motets
Op. 39 for womenís choir and organ (Veni Domine, Laudate
Pueri, Suffexit pastor bonus). They were written in Rome
about the same time as he wrote the Op. 23 motets. They are
pleasantly melodic pieces with interesting textures which flow
nicely, certainly not overtly chorale based. This is followed
by another piece for womenís voices, Hebe deine Augen auf
which is the trio from Elijah.
The final work for female voices, O beata et benedicta
for three-part womenís choir and organ, is a bit stiffer and
more strictly homophonic; it was in fact originally intended
as the second of the Op. 39 motets.
The Vespers responsory Adspice domine is written for
the unusual combination of menís choir, cello and double bass;
this results in some wonderful dark textures allied to nicely
fluid Bachian structure.
The two sacred male voice choruses Op. 115 (Beati mortui,
Perti autem) are not complex. They are mainly homophonic,
but nonetheless are little gems.
Trauergesang and jauchszet dem Herrn alle Welt
are both late pieces. They are nice enough but seem very much
gebrauchsmusik. They are followed by the octet from
Elijah, in its choral version, showing what the mature
Mendelssohn could really do. The disc finishes with another
little gem from the evening service, Herr sei gnadig.
As I have said, inevitably with such a project, there are pieces
here where you feel that a little more time in the studio would
have been welcome. That said, the standard of performance from
the Chamber Choir of Europe is remarkably high and you can listen
to these discs with great pleasure. They are well supported
in the early discs by the Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen.
This set comes in a slimline box with a CD containing PDFs of
a substantial article about Mendelssohnís sacred music alongside
full texts and translations.
Whilst a lot of the music on this disc is creditable but hardly
in the realm of the masterpiece, the sheer variety shows that
there was far more to Mendelssohnís sacred choral writing than
his oratorios. In the mature masterpieces for unaccompanied
choir there are some gems which everyone will want to have in
Granted, you will certainly want to have these mature masterpieces
such as the Op. 69 and the Op. 78 motets recorded by one of
the major choral ensembles. On the other hand this disc provides
a welcome overview of Mendelssohnís sacred music in some lively
and engaging performances.
One should also be aware of the largely complementary Mendelssohn
Die groŖen Chorwerke box on EMI Classics 50999 09646421
and Brilliantís own 4CD set of the two major oratorios (Hugill).
see also reviews of previous releases of this set by Michael
Cookson and Terry
Psalm 42 Wie der Hirsch schreit, Op. 42, (1837) [21.41]
Psalm 95 Kommt, last uns anbeten Op. 46 (1838) [22.31]
Psalm 98 Singet dem Herrn Op. 91 (1843) [7.10]
Psalm 114 Da Israel Aus Aegypten zog Op. 51 (1839) [12.44]
Psalm 115 Non nobis Domine Op. 31 (1830) [16.27]
Chorale Cantata No. 1 Ach Gott, von Himmel sieh darein (1832)
Chorale Cantata No. 2 Christe, du Lamm Gottes (1827) [6.24]
Chorale Cantata No. 3 Jesu, meine Freude (1828) [6.25]
Chorale Cantata No. 4 O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (1830) [13.16]
Chorale Cantata No.5 Verleih uns Frieden (1830) [4.18]
Chorale Cantata No.6 Von Himmel hoch (1831) [14.14]
Chorale Cantata No.7 Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten (1829)
Chorale Cantata No.8 Wir Glauben all an einen Gott (1831) [12.46]
Hymn, 3 Sacred Songs and Fugue Op. 96 (1843) [24.10]
Kyrie in D minor (1825) [10.24]
Lauda Sion Op. 73 (1846) [26.24]
Tue s Petrus Op. 111 (1827) [6.27]
Magnificat (1822) [29.49]
Gloria (1822) [31.21]
6 Anthems Op. 79 (1846) [11.20]
Hora est (1828) [8.46]
Te Deum a 4 (1832) [8.38]
Ave Maria, Op. 23 (1832) [7.58]
Te Deum a 8 (1826) [34.43]
The German Liturgy (1846) [7.01]
Aus tiefer Not, Op. 23 (1830) [12.42]
Mitten wir im Leben sind (1830) [7.39]
Jesus, meine Zuversicht (1824) [10.17]
3 Motets Op. 69 (1847) [21.50]
3 Psalms Op. 78 (1849) [19.44]
Choralharmonisierungen (1843) [10.25]
Kyrie in C (1823) [12.18]
Jube Domine (1822) [6.20]
Cantique pour líEglise Wallone de Francfort (1846) [1.34]
2 English Psalms (1839) [5.24]
7 Psalms (1843) [6.53]
13 Psalm Motets (1821) [35.24]
Veni Domine Op. 39 (1830) [3.47]
Laudate Pueri Op. 39 (1837) [5.45]
Surrexit pastor bonus (1830) [7.36]
Hebe deine Augen auf (from Elijah) [1.48]
O beata et benedicta (1830) [3.00]
Vespergesang ĎAdspice domineí Op. 121 (1830) [11.22]
Zwei Geistliche Mannerchore Op. 115 (1833) [5.45]
Trauergesang Op. 116 (1845) [3.56]
Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt (1844) [4.20]
Denn er hat seinen Englen (1844) [3.14]
Zum Abensegen ĎHerr sei gnadigí [2.27]