Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to England in 1840 was one of his shortest. He
arrived in London on 18 September and two days later headed to Birmingham on
the recently opened (1838) railway. On 22 September he played Bach’s Prelude
and Fugue in A minor BVW 543 on the Town Hall organ. The following day saw
the performance of the English language version of the Hymn of
. After the concert he gave a private organ recital. In the
evening, Mendelssohn was soloist in his Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor.
Other appearances at the Festival included the Overture: Midsummer’s
and his setting of Psalm 144
. The composer
returned to London on 26 September.
(Hymn of Praise
) was composed in Leipzig
during 1840 to celebrate the fourth centennial of the invention of printing.
At the same time, Mendelssohn also wrote the largely forgotten
Festgesang Gutenberg Cantata
. The present Symphony is subtitled in
the score as "A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible …" and
requires two soprano soloists as well as a choir and orchestra. The text
does not form a narrative nor have any ‘dramatic significance’. In fact, the
words are a collection of biblical texts "evoking the spiritual
progression from patience and darkness to illumination framed by psalms of
praise". This is presented in a series of choruses, solo recitatives
and arias. The symphony is in two distinct parts – a three movement
‘sinfonia’ for orchestra alone followed by a nine-movement cantata.
The Hymn of Praise
was well received in Birmingham, with the
audience spontaneously rising to its feet at the start of the choral section
‘Nun danket alle Gott’, (Let all men praise the Lord) an honour normally
restricted to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in Handel’s Messiah
The work was deemed by many concert-goers at the time to have been
specifically composed for the Birmingham Festival. However, it had been
premiered some three months earlier on 25 June 1840 in Leipzig.
The liner-notes for the present disc remind us of the chronological
problems inherent in Mendelssohn’s symphony. The traditional numbering does
not give an accurate picture. In fact the order of composition in was 1, 5,
4, 2, 3. So the Lobgesang
(Hymn of Praise
) was the
composer’s penultimate essay in this form.
I believe that The Overture: A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage
is the least popular of Mendelssohn’s concert overtures. Compared to the
or the Midsummer Night’s Dream
it receives fewer
concert performances and recordings. The work is bipartite and illustrates
two contrasting poems by Goethe, ‘The Calm Sea’ and ‘A Prosperous Voyage.’
The opening of the work is a beautiful adagio, which represents the ship
becalmed at sea, but after a short flute passage the ‘voyage’ recommences.
This is bustling music, no doubt representing ship-board life and the wide
ocean. The second main theme of this section has a gorgeous melody for
cello. The overture closes with the ship safely in port with pounding
timpani and a fanfare for trumpets before a short ‘amen’ gives thanks for a
safe passage. The work was first heard privately in Berlin on 7 September
Listeners will recall that Elgar made a musical quotation from this
overture in the 13th
variation of his ‘Enigma’ Variations.
This is the third volume in a Chandos retrospective of Mendelssohn’s music
and his connection with Birmingham. It includes all the Symphonies and a
selection of the overtures. I enjoyed the performance of both these works:
the standard of playing and the singing is excellent and is matched by a
The liner-notes are in two sections: programme notes for the music and an
essay on Mendelssohn in Birmingham. The former, by Bayan Northcott gives the
listener all they need to understand and enjoy these two great and dramatic
works. Gerald Larner has given a brief overview of all the composer’s
appearances in the Birmingham. It is a good introduction, but I guess it is
really a book-length topic.
There are also considerable notes about the City of Birmingham Symphony
Orchestra, their conductor Edward Gardner and the soloists. The full text is
given in both German and English with this latter translated by J. Alfred
Listeners will all have their favourite Mendelssohn symphonies. Mine is
the ‘Scottish’ followed by the ‘Italian’. The number of recordings available
the Arkivmusic catalogue (accessed on 20 February 2015), indicates to a
large extent their relative popularity: No.1 (38), No.2 (42), No.3
‘Scottish’ (109), No.4 ‘Italian’ (151) and No.5 ‘Reformation’ (66). Although
I enjoyed the Hymn of Praise
, I do feel that the symphony is a
little contrived – betraying the fact that it is two pieces ‘stuck’
together. That said, this is a work that deserves more attention and
performances than it currently receives.
Notwithstanding my reservations concerning the work’s formal
characteristics, it is full of lyrical melodies and exciting and involved
choruses. There is considerable self-referencing throughout with thematic
transformation and superb musical workmanship.
Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones