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Cantatas for Soprano
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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Symphony No. 2 “Lobgesang” [64:03]
Lucy Crowe & Jurgita Adamonytė (sopranos), Michael Spyres (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, Barbican, London, 2016 LSO LIVE LSO0803 BD-A/SACD [64:03]
No. 2 is, in several ways, the odd-one-out of Mendelssohn’s mature symphonies, and not just because it involves choral forces. For one thing, the composer never intended for it to be a symphony, calling it a “Symphony-Cantata” in reference to its structure as well as its content. It’s surely the least performed of the five, less, even, than No. 1, and that can’t just be because it requires more performers: that has never stopped Beethoven’s Ninth. No: it has to be something to do with the sacred content, something that we’re less comfortable with in our postmodern 21st century. Yes, it’s there in the Reformation symphony, too, but you can sort of ignore it there or attribute it mainly to historicism: you can’t do that when a choir of a hundred are thundering Bible verses at you in Lutheran German.
Mendelssohn wrote the symphony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable type, and by setting sections of the Lutheran Bible, Mendelssohn, the Christianised German Jew, was simultaneously celebrating two of Germany’s greatest contributions to western civilisation. However, it’s the relentlessness of the affirmation that, I suspect, we struggle with now. After Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God, any works that dealt with spirituality, such as those of Mahler, had to deal seriously with aspects of doubt and uncertainty. Mendelssohn’s sunny spiritual optimism has fallen out of favour with modern audiences who, I suspect, find it blasť and unconvincing.
To feel this way, however, cuts us off from a really magnificent work of music, which you can enjoy regardless of whether you sympathise with its spiritual content. It’s a celebration of faith, but it’s also a celebration of Mendelssohn’s technique at its most advanced and its most mature.
Maye John Eliot Gardiner took a while to get over that prejudice. I’m told he had never conducted it before this LSO performance, even though he has been conducting Mendelssohn's music for most of his career. We should all be glad that he has finally come to it, however, because his recording of it makes a fitting culmination to his LSO Live Mendelssohn cycle. As elsewhere in the cycle, he brings his huge experience of period performance to breathe fresh air through what you thought you knew about Mendelssohn, and the results are both refreshing and exhilarating.
Gardiner takes the opening statement, full of confidence, at a much more sprightly tempo than, say, Sawallisch or Karajan, which isn’t surprising, but is nevertheless refreshing. His is a performance that really breathes, and you sense that in the joyous, almost skittish Allegro that follows. His career in the world of historically informed performance comes through clearly, of course, and, while the LSO aren’t using period instruments, they use period techniques, as in other instalments in this series, and that makes a big difference. Those unison trombones in the opening, for example, are light and agile rather than portentous, and the strings play with minimal vibrato, which allows them to skip over their lines as though they were dancing. The Allegretto, for example, sways with all the allure of a waltz.
The exception to that comes in the gorgeous, brief third section (the closest the symphony has to an orchestral slow movement), where the strings take their time to meditate over one of the loveliest themes in Mendelssohn, inhabiting the Adagio religioso of the marking. The winds, too, when they intone their chorale themes, do so with sensitivity and inwardness that feels part of the whole rather than an attempt to draw attention to themselves.
The chorus are Gardiner’s own Monteverdi Choir who, I assume, are also performing this piece for the first time. When they eventually enter, the effect is marvellous because it is clear and direct but not overwhelming. If you want a wall of choral sound then you should look elsewhere, but what you get instead is singing of great clarity and intense precision. With that comes the ability to take a more agile approach to tempi, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the section from Psalm 33 (“Lobet denn Herrn mit Saitenspiele”) taken so quickly. It’s all of a piece with his approach, however, and it works very well indeed.
Gadiner’s vast experience with Bach shines through in his marvellously sympathetic treatment of the chorale Nun danket alle Gott: the first time round it is sung unaccompanied, and breathes beautifully naturally, while the unison treatment of its second verse unfolds alongside a wonderfully shaded orchestral accompaniment that flows supportively under the music. The final sequence is both busy and exciting, with both orchestra and chorus giving of their all in an energetic “Alles danke dem Herrn!”, and the reappearance of the trombones’ main theme in the coda brings the work to a very satisfying full-circle close.
The soloists are excellent, too. Lucy Crowe sounds, at first, a little fragile in her episode with the women’s choir, and she would have been swallowed up in a bigger recording, but she fits perfectly with Gardiner’s vision, and you could argue that she brings out the humane side of faith in her performance. She sounds beautiful (and well contrasted) in her duet with Jurgita Adamonytė at “Ich harrete des Herrn”, and brings daylight and consolation at “Die Nacht ist vergangen”, the keystone of the whole work. Michael Spyres, too, has no need to push his voice, and the understated delicacy of his singing is a treat for the ears. However, he manages to drill into his most existential depths for the central, hochromantisch section that despairs at the immanence of death and begs the watchman to declare the night to pass. It’s a wonderful section - perhaps the bit that we godless postmoderns can most empathise with - and Spyres conspires with Gardiner to make it a quasi-Berliozian music drama, complete with shuddering strings and wailing woodwinds.
As in the rest of the series, LSO Live have shown great largesse in giving us both a hybrid SACD and a surround sound BD. The sound on that, in particular, is really first rate, giving you an insight into the orchestra's inner textures that it would be almost impossible to replicate outside of the concert hall.
So this is a great performance on its own terms, but also marks a triumphant climax to Gardiner’s LSO Live Mendelssohn series, surely the finest from a single artistic team to have emerged since Abbado’s LSO series in the 1980s.
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