Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 Ė 1847)
Sacred Choral Works
see end of review for track listing
Lydia Allert (soprano); Anja Bittner (soprano); Heike Heilmann (soprano); Nathalie Karl (soprano); Annemarie Kremer (soprano); Petra Labitzke (soprano); Alena Leja (soprano); Isabell Muller-Cant (soprano); Birgit Wegermann (soprano); Birgit Meyer (alto); Eibe Mohlmann (alto); Barbara Werner (alto); Gabriele Wunderer (alto); Gerhard Holzle (tenor); Robert Morvai (tenor); Gerhard Nennemann (tenor); Dainel Sans (tenor); Raimund Spogis (baritone); Manfred Bittner (bass); Christof Fischesser (bass); Philip Niederberger (bass); Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass); Alice Duskova (organ); Chamber Choir of Europe/Nicol Matt; Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Nicol Matt
rec. 2002 Studio der Wurttemburgischen Philharmonie Reutlingen, Kloster Bronnbach, Wertheim
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94263 [8 CDs: 80.38 + 78.53 + 67.37 + 72.41 + 67.15 + 72.14 + 78.18 + 53.13]
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 Latin mass.
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 Lydia Allert.
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 bass.
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 es Petrus.
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 quickly.
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 their collection.
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).
A welcome overview of Mendelssohnís sacred music in lively and engaging performances.
see also reviews of previous releases of this set by Michael Cookson and Terry Barfoot
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) [11.44]
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) [9.44]
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]