Notes and Editorial Reviews
In 1829 Mendelssohn organised the first performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion since the composer’s death. The work, together with Handel’s Messiah, was to have an important influence on Mendelssohn’s own oratorios, and seven years later he completed the first of them, Paulus.
Narrating several incidents from the life of St Paul, the oratorio firmly established the composer’s European reputation, and it is clear that many of the recitatives, not to mention the chorales, are stylistically indebted to Bach. Fast-forward ten years to 1846 and we now encounter a more musically mature Mendelssohn, who draws on his experience writing Paulus, as well as his second symphony ‘Lobgesang’ with its choral finale, to produce Elias.
An immediate success, this work saw multiple encores at its premiere and has been a staple of the oratorio repertoire ever since. Similar to Paulus, the chorus serves as both a protagonist in the action and a narrator of events.
This 4CD release of these two oratorios comprises a wonderful coupling, giving Paulus, which has not been widely recorded, the equal treatment it deserves. Providing hours of pleasurable listening, it exposes a sacred form not particularly widespread at the time, and reveals to us Mendelssohn the devout Christian.
• Booklet notes.
• Complete sung texts available on www.brilliantclassics.com.
R E V I E W:
Alexandra Coku (sop);
Monica Groop (mez);
Claes H. Ahnsjö (ten);
Peter Lika (bs);
Balthasar Hens (boy sop);
Frankfurt Op O;
Frankfurt R Figural Ch;
Joshard Daus, cond;
Hellen Kwon (sop);
Elzbieta Ardam (alt);
Hans-Peter Blochwitz (ten);
SW German RSO
BRILLIANT 94319 (4 CDs: 245:22) Live:
Savvy readers (are there any other kind that read
?) will already have surmised, and correctly so, that the titles of Mendelssohn’s two oratorios are given in the headnote in German because their German-language versions are sung in these performances. All the more reprehensible then that Brilliant Classics has once again done something I lambasted the company for in a
35:3 review of the complete songs of André Jolivet: Texts are available only online at brilliantclassics.com. Let me just say again how irritating I find this practice. Still, with a four-disc set selling for only $17.99, I suppose one shouldn’t expect caviar with the water crackers.
In reviewing Christoph Spering’s German-sung
on MDG back in 34:5, I cited a number of recordings of the oratorio I was familiar with, noting that there were approximately an equal number of English versions as there were German. This Cambreling performance dates from 1994, so it’s not that old, but it’s not one of the several recordings of the work that was previously known to me. Cambreling’s
both appeared as two-disc separates on Arte Nova and are still available as such at Amazon’s U.K. site and elsewhere. Neither of the two Arte Nova separates nor this Brilliant Classics twinning of the two oratorios makes clear that these recordings are taken from live performances, but they are, and in
, in particular, the audience is more audible.
This is actually quite a fine rendition of
, assuming one has a preference for the German version. Peter Lika cuts an authoritative figure as the Hebrew Prophet with a strong voice and commanding presence. The rest of the soloists do full justice to their parts, and the chorus whips up a good deal of excitement in its frenzied cries of “Baal.” For once, diction is clear enough that you can make out the words, even if you don’t have a translation of the text to tell you what all the commotion is about. The best part of this
, though, is the orchestra and Cambreling’s leadership of it. I can’t tell you for sure if the ophicleide Mendelssohn calls for in the score is employed, but the three trombones and timpani ring out with penetrating pronouncements of prognostication more reproving than those of the finger-pointing prophet of doom himself. Cambreling keeps things moving along at a good pace, ensuring that interest doesn’t flag in some of the less inspired passages. The audience is not noticed and the acoustics of Frankfurt’s Alte Oper make for an open, full-bodied, dynamic recording.
in German), begun in 1834, predates
by a good 12 years. Though quite popular in its day, it has failed to hold the stage in modern times the way
has. Cynically, I suppose, one could say that
was another attempt by the composer—his “Reformation” Symphony of 1830 was a first—to curry favor with his largely Protestant patrons. But the real reasons for the work’s decline are the Victorian sensibilities of its libretto by Julius Schubring, based on passages from the Old and New Testaments, and Mendelssohn’s musical response to the text, which didn’t inspire him to his best. As in
, there are opportunities for some powerful and dramatic choral writing, but most of the solo numbers in
take the form of accompanied recitative; indeed, there are only three or four set solo arias in the entire oratorio.
Far fewer choices exist for
on record, but among them is the mid-1980s Philips version with Kurt Masur, Mendelssohn’s own Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and a starry cast of singers, including Gundula Janowitz, Theo Adam, and Hans-Peter Blochwitz, who happens to sing in this performance as well. It seems a bit of overkill to assemble such an illustrious lineup of soloists for a work that is not infrequently performed by amateur church groups, but there you have it.
It’s probably not fair to Joshard Daus and the forces he leads to say that his
is not as engaging as Cambreling’s
; that’s Mendelssohn’s doing. It is fair to say, however, that the Munich recording is not quite as vibrant as the Frankfurt one. If you like the idea of having both oratorios boxed together, you want them in their German versions, and you don’t mind the absence of enclosed texts, these are decent performances—Cambreling’s
is much better than decent, it’s actually excellent—and you won’t find them any cheaper.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Elijah, Op. 70 by Felix Mendelssohn
Alexandra Coku (Soprano),
Monica Groop (Mezzo Soprano),
Claes H. Ahnsjö (Tenor),
Peter Lika (Bass),
Balthasar Hens (Boy Soprano),
Daniel Graf (Cello)
Frankfurt Opera House and Museum Orchestra,
Figural Choir of Frankfurt Radio,
Written: 1846-1847; Germany
Saint Paul, Op. 36 by Felix Mendelssohn
Elzbieta Ardam (Alto),
Hellen Kwon (Soprano),
Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tenor),
Peter Lika (Bass)
Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Europa ChorAkademie Bach-Ensemble
Written: 1836; Germany
Date of Recording: 09/1995
Venue: The Warehouse, London, England
Length: 121 Minutes 53 Secs.
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