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Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Die Erste Walpurgisnacht; Brahms: Nanie; Schumann: Der Konigssohn

Bartholdy / Brahms / Schumann,R. / Bsop / Nagano
Release Date: 02/22/2011 
Label:  Farao   Catalog #: 108059   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Felix MendelssohnJohannes BrahmsRobert Schumann
Performer:  Burkhard FritzDetlef RothFranz-Josef [Bass Vocals] Selig
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State OrchestraAudi Acadamy Youth Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MENDELSSOHN Die erste Walpurgisnacht. BRAHMS Nänie. SCHUMANN Der Königssohn Kent Nagano, cond; Simone Schröder (mez); Burkhard Fritz (ten); Detlef Roth (bar); Franz-Josef Selig (bs); Audi Young Persons’ Choral Academy; Bavarian St O FARAO 108059 (70:39 & no translation) Live: Munich 5/30/2010

It’s Read more high time we had a new recording of Mendelssohn’s pagan pageant to offset so many releases of the composer’s give-’em-hell prophet Elijah. Mendelssohn first drafted Die erste Walpurgisnacht in 1831, but he extensively revised the work before its publication in 1843. The text is drawn from verses in Goethe’s Faust that evoke the celebration of a Black Mass. But Mendelssohn chose to portray a somewhat different and less demonic vision, one associated with a pagan festival whose roots go back centuries.

While components of the festival may have had their dark side vis-à-vis summoning supernatural spirits believed to possess the souls of the departed—which eventually gave rise to our Halloween, with its ghosts, goblins, and ghouls—the early pagan practices were more oriented toward naturism. If the Druids of Mendelssohn’s Walpurgistnacht went about waving torches and building bonfires, it wasn’t to burn witches at the stake; it was to feast on apples, nuts, and harvest fruits, and to give thanks to the forest gods for their bounty. Essentially, they were a harmless lot who simply wanted to practice their customs and rituals in peace. But you didn’t want to rile them up by threatening to butcher their children. In Mendelssohn’s version of the festivities, if anyone was going to be burned at the stake, it was those meddlesome Christians who were harassing a peaceful tribe of nature-loving hippies.

There are two ways of looking at the piece. Either it’s an irreverent putdown of early Christian crusaders and zealots—“These stupid Christians, let us boldly outsmart them. Come! With stakes and pitchforks and with flames and rattling sticks we’ll make noise through the night”—or it can be seen in a more serious light of intolerance, discrimination, and persecution of “the other,” simply for practicing a different religion, or no religion at all. Mendelssohn himself knew well the ramifications of being an outsider. This particular skirmish ends without bloodshed as the frightened Christians run away, but the work ends on a somewhat naive note as the Druid priest and chorus sing, “Even if they rob us of our ancient ritual, who can take your light from us?” We know the tragic answer to that question.

In Fanfare 33:1, after some hemming and hawing, I cast my vote in favor of Christoph von Dohnányi’s 1976 Walpurgisnacht with the Vienna Philharmonic and Singverein on the Australian Eloquence label over his 1988 remake for Telarc with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Tom Krause was the baritone on both recordings, but I felt that the Vienna players and singers had a slight edge over the Clevelanders and that mezzo Margarita Lilowa for Dohnányi 1976 outshone Christine Cairns for Dohnányi 1988.

Here with Nagano we have a somewhat different kettle of fish. Dohnányi is not a conductor I tend to associate with opera. Nagano, however, is, and while Mendelssohn’s Walpurgisnacht is not an opera, it’s a type of dramatic cantata I could see being staged. The music is closer to the incidental numbers from the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than it is to his other heavier and more serious orchestral-choral oratorios like Elijah and St. Paul , or to the hymnic, chorale-like numbers in the “Lobgesang” Symphony. The Walpurgis nature-worshipping heathens have something in common with the elves and fairies of the composer’s Shakespeare fantasy. And Nagano and his young choristers, some who look barely out of their teens, capture that sense of innocence, naiveté, and wide-eyed wonderment to perfection. Listening to them one imagines their incomprehension and dismay at being bullied by a band of crusading zealots on a mission to convert or kill them. Nagano’s performance sparkles with wit and wisdom.

Brahms composed Nänie in 1881 in memory of his painter friend Anselm Feuerbach. For his text, Brahms chose a poem of the same title by Schiller, which begins with the line “Also Beauty must perish!” It’s so often we find Brahms a quarry for quotation and imitation that it’s hard to imagine a role reversal in which the prey becomes the predator. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the case of Nänie.

Seven years earlier, Hermann Goetz had drawn upon the same Schiller poem for his own choral-orchestral setting (there’s a recording of it with Werner Andreas Albert on cpo), and we know that Brahms heard it performed in Vienna in 1880. The similarities do not end with Brahms’s choice of text or his setting of it for orchestra and chorus. The key of F?-Major, unusual in an orchestral work but found in the central sections of both Goetz’s and Brahms’s settings, is unlikely to be purely coincidental; neither are the shifting meters between 4/4 and 6/4, also found in both works. Also rather unusual for a piece intended as a dirge is the overall major-key tonality—Brahms’s Nänie begins and ends in D Major with the aforementioned excursion to F?-Major at the Più sostenuto —reflecting an attitude toward death the composer had expressed more than a dozen years earlier in the peaceful, quiet, contemplative moments of his German Requiem.

Compared to the German Requiem , the Alto Rhapsody, Gesang der Parzen , and Schicksalslied, Nänie hasn’t received a lot of attention on disc, but it’s had more outings than Rinaldo and Triumphlied . In Fanfare 33:6, reviewing a new recording of Nänie by the young British conductor Robin Ticciati, Henry Fogel mentions his favorite version performed by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco orchestra and chorus on Decca. I have that recording and tend to agree with Fogel that it’s an excellent choice, as is Abbado with the Berlin forces and Sinopoli with the Czech Philharmonic. But topping them all may be a gorgeous 1988 Telarc CD with Robert Shaw, his Atlanta orchestra and chorus, and a resplendent Marilyn Horne in an Alto Rhapsody also included on the disc.

In Nagano’s new Nänie , we have an angelic sounding choir that, for all its beauty of tone, is ever so slightly lacking in the heftier sound of its older, more seasoned choral competitors. I also feel that Nagano, the recording, or the acoustics of Munich’s Jesuit Church of St. Michael favors the choir a bit too much over the orchestra, such that important orchestral detail is lost. In fact, our very own Jens F. Laurson was in attendance at this concert and wrote a review for MusicWeb International in which he voiced much the same complaint: “In the reverberant acoustic of the gorgeous St. Michael Jesuit church in the pedestrian zone of downtown Munich, a full orchestra will have a hard time producing anything but a mush of sound. The Bavarian State Orchestra under Kent Nagano was no exception to that on the last Sunday of this May.” I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the sound as mush, but clarity is not one of its virtues.

By far the rarest item on this disc is Schumann’s Der Königssohn . How rare is it? Well, allegedly this is the only recording of it currently listed. A search turned up a two-disc EMI set containing all four of Schumann’s ballads in performances by Bernhard Klee conducting the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra and Musikverein Chorus with soloists Doris Soffel, Josef Protschka, Walter Berry, and others, but I was only able to find used copies of it on Amazon’s U.K. site.

Between 1851 and 1853, Schumann wrote four ballads— Der Königssohn, Vom Pagen und der Königstochter, Glück von Edenhall , and Sängers Fluch —three of which are set to texts by Ludwig Uhland. They are among the last works Schumann would write before his final breakdown and confinement to a mental institution in 1854. Judging from the literary content of Der Königssohn , Uhland must have been as deranged as Schumann. I’ve read the notes three times now and still don’t understand what this fantastical story is about. We have German medieval knights, the sea-birth of the “great man” from Nordic sagas who wrestles against and defeats the forces of nature, a lion, an eagle, and a wild horse. And at the end, “the great man” kisses the dragon, thus freeing from an evil spell a beautiful woman who becomes his queen and he, the king of a new magic realm. Harry Potter, eat your heart out!

The piece is divided into six sections, and if you didn’t know what it was about, you’d swear that some of it sounds like Mendelssohn, some of it like Brahms, and some of it like Wagner. Very little of it sounds like Schumann. I have to say, though, that the music is magnificent. The composer’s four ballads are in urgent need of a new recording, or perhaps EMI could resurrect the one already in its back catalog.

Nagano’s Walpurgisnacht is a thorough delight and recommended without reservations, but given serious competition and the less than ideal sound in the Brahms, Nänie is not. However, for the 26 minutes of Der Königssohn , which is more than a third of the disc, you can’t afford to pass this up. Both poet and composer may have been mentally unstable, but Schumann was still capable of writing some fantastic music, even if much of it sounds like it’s by someone else.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60 by Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra,  Audi Acadamy Youth Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1832; Germany 
Date of Recording: 05/30/2010 
Venue:  Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich 
Length: 25 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Nänie, Op. 82 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Burkhard Fritz (), Detlef Roth (), Franz-Josef [Bass Vocals] Selig ()
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra,  Audi Acadamy Youth Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880-1881; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/30/2010 
Venue:  Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich 
Length: 11 Minutes 45 Secs. 
Der Königssohn, Op. 116 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Franz-Josef [Bass Vocals] Selig (), Detlef Roth (), Burkhard Fritz ()
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra,  Audi Acadamy Youth Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1851 
Date of Recording: 05/30/2010 
Venue:  Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich 
Length: 25 Minutes 30 Secs. 

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