Notes and Editorial Reviews
Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Racine’s Athalia is a genuine rarity, and after hearing this recording, one has to wonder why it isn’t heard more frequently. This is mostly top-drawer Mendelssohn, filled with energy, varied in its color and tone, and inspired. We don’t have that many works in the repertoire by this German master, and it is a shame to omit this from the canon.
Perhaps the fact that the music requires at least some reading of narrative passages, in order to hang together, presents a problem for administrators or conductors. These German-language passages were written by Eduard Devrient (based on Racine’s French original) to provide a meaningful context for the score, and we are fortunate in this release that
they are well read, and that Hänssler provides complete translations.
The music, as does the play, alternates between the secular and the sacred—another reason it has been unkindly treated by history. But perhaps this stunning new recording will rectify the situation. I have not heard the earlier recording by Christopher Sperling on Capriccio, but it is hard to imagine that it is on this level. Rilling is thrilling—investing the music with dramatic intensity without sacrificing any of its lyrical beauty. His three vocal soloists are splendid, and the orchestral and choral forces perform with a sense of genuine commitment and sensitivity, not to mention virtually perfect execution.
If the narrated texts disturb you, you can program then out and just listen to the music—but I would recommend hearing the whole thing in context. Hänssler has provided a superbly informative program note (despite one typographical error that extends a quote of Mendelssohn’s too far—in the English version only). The essay helps us understand why Mendelssohn’s setting is in German rather than French, and provides much insight into the score. The recorded sound is open and natural—the kind of engineering that one stops thinking about because it doesn’t stand between the listener and the music.
Henry Fogel, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Athalie, Op. 74 by Felix Mendelssohn
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart,
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1845; Germany
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