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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Psalm settings
Non nobis Domine, Op. 31 (Psalm 115) [15:30]
Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser, Op. 42 (Psalm 42) [22:59]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, Op. 91 (Psalm 98) [7:06]
Hear my prayer (based on Psalm 55) (no Op. number) [9:33]
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (no Op. number) [4:08]
Johanna Winkel (soprano), Hanne Weber (alto), Julian Prégardien (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac (bass-baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Howard Arman
rec. live, December 2016, Prinzregententheater, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900519 [59:16]

Mendelssohn, although Jewish by background, was a baptised Christian and he composed a good deal of church music. As well as the oratorios, of which Elijah is the best known, there is a large number of a cappella works and also five psalm settings with orchestral accompaniment, of which three are included on this disc. (For the record, the other two are Psalm 95, Op. 46, and Psalm 114, Op. 51. The Psalm numbers are the same in Mendelssohn as in English Bibles and prayer books.)

Philip Radcliffe, in the old Master Musicians volume on the composer, was rather sniffy about these. More recently Charles Rosen was more biting, saying ‘Mendelssohn is the inventor of religious kitsch in music.’ By this he meant that ‘it substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion. It evades all aspects of controversy, of dramatic conflict. It does not comfort, but only makes us comfortable.’ I think this is rather unfair, since there is no need to doubt Mendelssohn’s sincerity, but Rosen has put his finger on the weakness of these works: they are skilfully composed, as one would expect, but also rather anonymous and conventional. They are pleasant works but do not leave a strong impression.

The first work here sets Psalm 115, or rather some passages from it, in Latin. It begins with a rather fine chorus, so close to Bach as to be almost pastiche. This is followed but a duet for soprano and tenor in the composer’s characteristic 6-8 rhythm, and an arioso for baritone before a final chorus, which begins, most un-Bachianly, unaccompanied, before the orchestra joins in.

The setting of Psalm 42, set in German, the composer considered the best of these works. It is an extended work with seven numbers. He follows the thought movement of the Psalm, from longing for God to trust in Him. Again we have an opening chorus, then an aria for soprano, a short recitative and then a number for soprano with chorus. The turning point comes in a chorus setting the words ‘Put thy trust in God.’ We then have another short recitative, a quintet and then a final chorus which features a confident fugue over a rushing accompaniment. This modulates frequently and expansively, but without achieving that combination of surprise and inevitability which characterises Bach’s longer movements.

The short setting of Psalm 98, also in German, written for an official occasion, is much the weakest work here. It is of course competently written, in four movements, but never rises beyond a mood of official rejoicing. It might have been better to choose the setting of Psalm 114, Op. 51, which Radcliffe thought the finest of these works.

The disc is completed with two other works. Hear my prayer is a setting in English of a paraphrase of Psalm 55, made by William Bartholomew who translated Elijah into English. Mendelssohn originally set this for soprano, choir and organ, but later orchestrated it, which is what we have here. It ends with the solo ‘O for the wings of a dove’, long ago made famous by the treble Ernest Lough and still often a party piece for choristers.

Finally, Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich is an early work, setting a short prayer by Martin Luther, in German, the text of which is repeated three times. Schumann was greatly impressed by this short work and said it deserved to be world-famous. It is indeed a jewel and one which might have given even Charles Rosen pause.

Howard Arman is an English choral conductor, who has made his career in Germany, where he has concentrated on baroque music. He secures confident and expressive results from his excellent chorus, which has to sing in three languages, and the soloists are all fine, particularly the soprano Johanna Winkel, who appears in four of the five works. The orchestra give suitable support. The recording is a live one, though one would not have guessed it, and the acoustics of the Prinzregententheater are appropriate for the works.

However, I have to make the usual reservation: there are no texts or translations of the words sung. The disc is enclosed in a cardboard sleeve, which I could have dispensed with in order to have the texts. True, most English readers can produce the text of the Psalms in English but may not immediately be able to lay their hands on the Latin or German versions. They can all be found on the internet, but this is something the record company should have done. I do not understand why companies invest in good performances and recordings and then reduce their market by not including texts.

There are various other recordings of these psalm settings, though it is not possible to fit all onto one disc. The obvious rival is that by Helmut Rilling, who omits Psalm 95, Op. 46, but offers the other four on Hänssler Classic HAEN98273, with, I am informed, complete texts and English translations. Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich is much harder to find, so its inclusion here may tip the balance for some.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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