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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (1840)
Christiane Karg (soprano); Christina Landshamer (soprano); Michael Schade (tenor)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. June 2012 Philharmonie, Munich, Germany
Full German texts with English and French translations
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902151 [61:48]

Of all the major composers in relation to their talent Mendelssohn seems the most neglected. Revered during his lifetime his music became less regarded from around the mid-twentieth century; greatly hindered by the prejudice surrounding his Jewish heritage. This reached its apogee under National Socialism. From my experience in recent years performances of his works if anything seem to be decreasing. Inexplicably it is only a handful of compositions that keep Mendelssohn’s name in the spotlight: the Violin Concerto in E minor, Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave), Scottish Symphony, Italian Symphony, the oratorio Elijah and the Octet.
 
Although extremely popular during Mendelssohn’s lifetime the Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) is one of the least performed of his major works. That said, Mendelssohn biographer Prof. R. Larry Todd holds the view that in the last couple of decades it has begun to enjoy a revival. The work was a commission by the city of Leipzig to Mendelssohn its Kapellmeister for a celebratory concert to mark the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in 1840. Mendelssohn described the work as a ‘A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra’. He selected the words himself from the Lutheran Bible, mainly verses describing ‘triumph over darkness’ from the Psalms, Isaiah and two of Paul’s Epistles. Mendelssohn also composed the Festgesang an die Künstler (Festival Song) for the 1840 Gutenberg festival celebrations. Lasting here just over an hour, structurally the Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) begins with a Sinfonia in three purely orchestral movements in the manner of a prelude or overture followed by a sequence of nine choruses, recitatives and arias.
 
Marked Maestoso con moto the opening section of the Sinfonia has the heroic quality I like to hear, feeling more like the opening to a late-Romantic symphony than a sacred choral work. Section II marked Allegretto un poco agitato has the distinct dance character and the Adagio religioso third section is deeply reverential and apt to precede the score’s sacred text.
 
This is an outstanding performance of the Sinfonia by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with considerable forward momentum under the assured direction of Pablo Heras-Casado.
 
A highlight is the second movement (the opening of the cantata section) scored for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra. The entrance of the choir with the words Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn (All men, all things, all that have life and breath) makes a profound impression. Devout and expressive it maintains throughout a notable weight of sound to honour and extol a virtuous Lord. At 4:41 the entrance of soprano Christiane Karg with the words Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, my soul) lightens the proceedings. Karg’s voice bathes the listener in a bright and piecing sacred light, although, I had some minor concerns over her enunciation - specifically the lack of emphasis for word endings.
 
In the third movement the tenor Michael Schade has crystal clear diction giving praise and gratitude for the goodness of the Lord. Scored for chorus the short fourth movement Sagt es, die ihr erlöst seid (All ye that cried unto the Lord) is performed by the Bavarian Radio Chorus. They show impressive unity in penitence to the Lord for his help in time of need.
 
The best-known section of Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) is the duet for sopranos with chorus Ich harrete des Herrn (I Waited for the Lord) which forms the fifth movement. Right from the very beginning this movement has a dramatic effect. At the Thomaskirche première in 1840 Robert Schumann wrote, “…it was like a glimpse of a Heaven filled with Raphael Madonnas.” Sopranos Christiane Karg and Christina Landshamer are wonderfully matched and poised providing just the right amount of sacred expression. This gloriously devotional E flat major duet proclaims: blessed are those who trust in the Lord.
 
Movement six Stricke des Todes (The sorrows of death) is a dark and serious tenor solo. Michael Schade sings with assurance and commendable commitment declaring a doom-laden warning that the sorrows of death are all around. The gloom begins to lighten at 3:48 with the welcome entrance of the supplicant yet bright-toned soprano: Die Nacht ist vergangen! (The night is departing!).
 
The words Nun danket alle Gott (Let all men praise the Lord) commence the eighth movement for chorus that comprises two verses of text. I recall this well-loved melody being a popular choice for school anthems. The splendidly matched voices of the Bavarian Radio Chorus rise in supplication and in praise and glory to the Lord and to the Holy Trinity.
 
Marked Andante sostenuto assai movement nine Drum sing ich mit meinem Liede (My song shall be therefore thy mercy) is a duet performed here by tenor Michael Schade and a soprano who I presume to be Christiane Karg. Pleasingly contrasted the voices in the duet communicate a devotional and unsullied declaration that the Lord redeems with watchful goodness.
 
Under the attentive direction of Pablo Heras-Casado the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks provides unfaltering and sensitive support. This never threatens to overwhelm the soloists or choral forces yet offers a generous range of orchestral colours.
 
My reference recording of the Mendelssohn Lobgesang has been Karajan conducting the Edith Mathis, Liselotte Rebmann and Werner Hollweg with the Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Karajan recorded this in 1972 in Berlin/Dahlem on Deutsche Grammophon. I also greatly admire the recording with Frieder Bernius conducting Christiane Karg, Maria Bernius and Werner Güra, the Kammerchor Stuttgart and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. This was recorded in 2008 at the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Schwaigern. It’s volume 10 of the series of complete Mendelssohn Sacred Choral Music on Carus. The merits are clear for the 1985 version from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Claudio Abbado. At the Walthamstow Town Hall in London, Abbado assembled a sensitive trio of Elizabeth Connell, Karita Mattila and Hans Peter Blochwitz together with the excellent London Symphony Chorus on Deutsche Grammophon.
 
This excellent new release is a match for any of the versions in the catalogue. The engineers have provided a most rewarding sound-stage being clear and well balanced. Pleasingly the label has provided full German texts with English and French translations in the booklet together with an essay by Roman Hinke.
 
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Symphony 2