Arnold MENDELSSOHN (1855 – 1933)
Christmas Motets (1923/4); Deutsche Messe (1923)
Deutsche Messe, Op.89 (German Mass for 8-part Choir a cappella and soloists) [28:12]
Träufelt, ihr Himmel, von oben (Advents-Motette Op.90/5) (Drop down dew, ye heavens) [13:48]
Lobt Gott, ihr Christen (Motette zum Weihnachtsfest Op.90/9) (Praise God, ye Christians) [13:53]
Siehe! Finsternis decket das Erdreich (Motette zum Epiphaniasfest Op.90/10) (Behold! Darkness shall cover the Earth) [10:13]
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. SWR Studio, Stuttgart, Germany, 26 September, 2008, 20 February, 2009, 25-6 June, 2009, 10-11 December 2009 and 12-13 January 2011. DSD
Booklet with texts and translations included
A shorter version of this review appeared in my 2012/21 Download News.
Although, understandably, some of the online suppliers are emphasising the Christmas content, Hänssler themselves have been much more restrained, resisting the temptation to use a Christmas-card type of cover in favour of a plain background to match other releases from the SWR Vokalensemble: Bruckner (93.199), Elliott Carter (93.231) and Villa-Lobos (93.268). In fact its value lies just as much in offering the only current recording of the Deutsche Messe or German Mass – the only one that I remember, though it has plenty to offer.
Look twice at the name of the composer before buying. Arnold Mendelssohn was the son of the nephew of Felix Mendelssohn, though he never knew his more famous uncle. He spent most of his life in the service of the Protestant church and, if the music here is typical, did well in that service. The German Mass which opens the recording owes much to his interest in earlier musical forms – I hear the influence of Schütz, for example, of whose St Matthew Passion and St John Passion I see that he and Philipp Spitta made performing editions, as well as the more obvious J.S. Bach – but he is completely his own man. His great-uncle’s* music, too, was clearly an influence and, while I can’t claim that he deserves to be as well known – as, for example, Giovanni Gabrieli does in relation to his uncle Andrea – he equally doesn’t deserve to be so little known.
I don’t know how often this Deutsche Messe is employed in Lutheran services but it wouldn’t come amiss for Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedral and collegiate choirs to perform all or parts of it – probably the Ehre sei Gott, for example, could be sung to an adaptation of the (prosaic) modern English translation of the Gloria used by both. If you’re doubtful about liking it and you have access to the Naxos Music Library, try it for yourself there – you’ll even find the booklet.
In earlier Lutheran tradition the Kyries and Gloria in excelsis were usually sung in Latin, especially on festal occasions, as in Bach’s short masses, but by Arnold Mendelssohn’s time all the parts of the common of the mass were sung in German. One peculiarity of the words which he sets in his Deutsche Messe is that the Sanctus is prefaced by the words of Isaiah which describe how the three-fold praise was sung by the seraphim before the Lord, as witnessed by the prophet ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’. In addition to the traditional common texts, Mendelssohn rounds off his setting with a Schlußgesang or final hymn of benediction.
The Op. 90 motets contain music for the whole church year – Op.90/1, for example, is for passiontide – the three chosen for inclusion here are for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Op.90/5 sets the German translation of the traditional Advent prose, Rorate cœli, drop down your dew, ye heavens, here rather awkwardly translated as ‘sprinkle from above, ye heavens’ and contains the traditional chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, come now, Saviour of the nations. Op.90/9 for Christmas begins with a Lutheran chorale, Praise God ye Christians all together, continues with another chorale which leads into the song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest, and also includes the well-known chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the congregation to get involved. Op.90/10, for Epiphany, includes a German version of the compline hymn Nunc dimittis and again concludes with a chorale for the whole congregation.
Performances and recording do Arnold Mendelssohn’s music justice – the former almost a given with Frieder Bernius at the helm. I listened to the CD track and the stereo SACD track but can’t vouch for the 5.1 surround sound. The booklet contains helpful notes about the composer and the music.
If you’re looking for more music by Arnold Mendelssohn, there’s a Cantate recording of more of the Op.90 Geistliche Chormusik – Nos.1, 4, 5, 6 and 11, so only one work overlapping with the Hänssler recording. (CAN58005 [67:24]). There’s another Christmas Arnold Mendelssohn work, Markt und Straßen steh’n verlassen on an Ars Produktion CD, A late-romantic Christmas Eve (ARS38086) which John Sheppard recommended as full of seasonal delights – review.
To return in summation to the new SACD, it’s a delight – attractive music, constructed with a craftsmanship worthy of Arnold Mendelssohn’s more famous forebear, in excellent performances and well recorded.
* as between the German and English texts of the Hänssler notes there’s some confusion about the relationship, with Neffe zweiten Grades rendered as ‘second cousin’ and Onkel as ‘uncle’. Strictly, I suppose, Felix was his great-uncle, but I’m not sure what the German for that relationship is; ein grosser Onkel is a big toe. My Austrian friend was little help – he doesn’t seem to be big on relationships. Though his German remains first-class – he’s just re-reading the Middle High German Nibelungenlied – when he visits his apartment in Austria all the locals insist on speaking to him in English.
Brian Wilson
Attractive music, constructed with a craftsmanship worthy of Arnold Mendelssohn’s more famous forebear … excellent performances and well recorded.