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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Psalm 115, Non nobis Domine (Not unto us, O Lord) for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 31 (1829/30) [15.30]
Psalm 42, Wie der Hirsch schreit (As pants the hart) for soprano, choir and orchestra, Op. 42 (1837/38) [22.59]
Psalm 98, Singet dem Herren ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a new-made song) for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 91 (1844) [07.06]
Psalm 55, Hear my Prayer, hymn for soprano, choir and orchestra (1844) [09.33]
Chorale cantata: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (Give us Thy blessed peace) for choir and orchestra (words by Martin Luther) (1831) [04.08]
Johanna Winkel (soprano), Hanne Weber (alto), Julian Prégardien (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac (bass-baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Howard Arman
rec. live, 17 December 2016 Prinzregentheater, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900519 [59.16]

It’s always pleasing to have a new album of Mendelssohn’s exalting psalm settings which sadly are an all too neglected part of his oeuvre. It is sometimes said that the German composer’s greatest accomplishment lies in this field. Here we have a judiciously chosen programme of four psalm settings and a single chorale cantata. Especially gratifying too is that these live performances, from a quartet of soloists, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Howard Arman, feel so inspiring.

Completed more than 50 sacred works throughout his life Mendelssohn was greatly inspired by psalms composing 5 great psalm settings with orchestra. The uplifting setting of Psalm 115, Non nobis Domine was composed for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, choir and orchestra. With Handel’s Dixit Dominus serving as the likely motivation the Latin setting was started by Mendelssohn probably whilst in England late in 1829 and completed the next year in Rome. This was Mendelssohn’s only psalm setting to use a Latin Vulgate text from the Catholic service based on from psalm 113 rather than the Lutheran text. For its publication in 1835 Mendelssohn felt it advantageous to also provide a German translation of the text employing psalm 115 from the Luther Bible. Of its type, this is Mendelssohn’s earliest of his great orchestral psalm settings although its première had to wait until 1838 when given at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Highlights are the lovely duet Donus Israel hofft auf dich with soprano Johanna Winkel displaying her striking voice and pious expression and tenor Julian Prégardien his honeyed tone. In the bass arioso Er segne euch je mehr und mehr the splendid diction and meaningful expression of Krešimir Stražanac is decidedly imposing.

Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 42, Wie der Hirsch schreit scored for soprano, choir and orchestra has endured as one of his most popular sacred choral works. Composed in 1837-38 Mendelssohn described his German setting as “my best sacred piece… the best thing I have composed in this manner” a work that, “I hold in greater regard than most of my other compositions.” Robert Schumann also prized the work highly considering it worthy of great praise. Inspiring is Winkel in her soprano aria in Meine Seele dürstet nach Gott featuring splendid accompaniment from the solo oboe. Uplifting singing too from the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks clearly savouring the sacred text.

Composed in 1843/44 during his short-lived tenure as Generalmusikdirektor at Berlin Cathedral for the newly formed Berlin Cathedral Choir the setting of Psalm 98, Singet dem Herrn ein neuses Lied is scored for soloists, choir and orchestra. Patterned in the manner of Handel’s great oratorio choruses it was intended as an Introit psalm for use before the service proper. According to Prof. R. Larry Todd this setting of Psalm 98 was “Mendelssohn’s attempt to circumvent the restrictions on music in the Prussian liturgy, and the King’s (Friedrich Wilhelm IV) preference for a-cappella music.” Stirring is the opening movement Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requiring only an unaccompanied chorus who convey a near searing sacred dedication. Employing chorus and orchestra complete with trombones and harp the Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt is powerful and dignified. The contributions of alto Weber, tenor Prégardien and bass-baritone Stražanac feel coherently involving. In the final movement Er wird den Erdkreis richten the chorus is joined by the orchestral forces to accentuate the exultant conclusion with the text Denn er kommt, zu richten das Erdreich, strongly reminiscent of a Handelian finale.

A short work premiered in London in 1845 Hear my Prayer scored here for soprano, choir and orchestra is a setting of an English translation by William Bartholomew an adaptation of the text of Psalm 55. One of his celebrated sacred works the anthem Hear my Prayer containing the much-loved solo O for the wings of a dove! was extremely popular in Victorian England. Although many are enamoured by the solo part being taken by a boy treble here Winkel makes a strong case for the soprano voice.

Under tutelage of Carl Zelter, Mendelssohn was inspired by the music of J.S. Bach that he had experienced at the Berlin Singakademie. This stimulus led to the young composer around 1827-32 writing a set of eight chorale cantatas on German hymn tunes. From that set of chorale cantatas, included in this programme, although not a psalm setting like the 4-other works, is Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich for choir and orchestra which uses words by Martin Luther. This is engaging singing from Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks firm and polished, conveying persuasive dynamic control.

With utmost conviction from beginning to end the renowned Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks deliver appropriately devout singing, well focused and eminently unified. Conductor Howard Arman pulls everything together with calm assurance, adopting sensible speeds and dynamics. Of high order too is the playing of Münchner Rundfunkorchester such a versatile ensemble that seems completely at home with Mendelssohn’s music.

Recorded in live performance at Prinzregentheater, Munich the engineering team has produced gratifying quality sound that is clear with presence and well balanced. There is virtually no audience noise and the applause has been removed. Sung texts are not included in the booklet which is a substantial disappointment although there is an essay by Judith Kaufmann. Curiously there is no biographical information in the notes about soprano Johanna Winkel who features on four of the five works or any of the other soloists either. With a total timing lasting just under 60 minutes an additional psalm setting or chorale cantata could easily have been accommodated on the disc.

For those wanting to further explore Mendelssohn’s sacred choral music highly recommendable is the 12-volume set from conductor Frieder Bernius that also includes the Lobgesang – Hymn of Praise (Symphony No. 2) and oratorios St. Paul and Elijah. On the Carus label Bernius’ mammoth undertaking commenced in 1983 and continued right through until 2008 using a roster of impressive soloists, several choral and orchestra ensembles that were recorded in German churches. Performed to a consistently high standard all but one of the volumes have the benefit of sung texts, mostly with English translations provided (review).

On BR Klassik this absorbing Mendelssohn album, comprising of a quartet of great orchestral psalm settings and a single chorale cantata, is distinguished by outstanding performances that are both convincing and revealing.

Michael Cookson

Performer details
Psalmen (Psalms)
1-4. Psalm 115, Non nobis Domine (Not unto us, O Lord) for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 31 (1829/30) [15.30]
Johanna Winkel (soprano)
Julian Prégardien (tenor)
Krešimir Stražanac (bass baritone)
5-12. Psalm 42, Wie der Hirsch schreit (As pants the hart) for soprano, choir and orchestra, Op. 42 (1837/38) [22.59]
Johanna Winkel, soprano
13-16. Psalm 98, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a new-made song) for soloists, choir and orchestra, Op. 91 (1844) [07.06]
Johanna Winkel (soprano)
Hanne Weber (alto)
Julian Prégardien (tenor)
Krešimir Stražanac (bass baritone)
17. Psalm 55, Hear my Prayer, hymn for soprano, choir and orchestra (1844) [09.33]
Johanna Winkel (soprano)
18. Chorale cantata: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (Give us Thy blessed peace) for choir and orchestra (words by Martin Luther) [04.08]
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Howard Arman

 

 




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