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Brilliant Classics £27.30

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Sacred Choral Music

CD1 [51.25]: Psalmkantaten Nos. 42; Opus 42 [1837]; 95, Opus 46 [1839]; 98, Opus 91 [1843]
CD2 [53.44]: Psalmkantaten Nos. 114, Opus 51 [1839]; 115, Opus 31 [1830]; Choralkantaten Nos. 1-3
CD3 [54.28]: Choralkantaten Nos. 4-8
CD4 [67.27]: Hymne, Opus 96 [1843]; Lauda Sion, Opus 73 [1846]
CD5 [61.13]: Magnificat, Opus 121 No. 1; Gloria [1822]
CD6 [60.19]: Hora est [1828]; Te Deum à 4; Ave Maria, Opus 23 No. 2 [1830]; Te Deum, Opus 111 No. 3 [1846]
CD7 [52.27]: Drei Kirchenmusiken, Opus 23 [1830]; Drei Motetten, Opus 69 [1847]
CD8 [38.05]: Drei Psalmen, Opus 78 [1844]; Sechs Sprüche, Opus 79 [1846]; Die Deutsche Liturgie, Opus 111 No. 2 [1846]
CD9 [78.18]: Psalmen; Psalmotetten; Choralharmonisierungen
CD10 [53.00]: Drei Motetten, Opus 39 (1830); Vespergesang, Opus 121
Lydia Allert (soprano), Anja Bittner (soprano), Heike Heilmann (soprano), Natalie Kark (soprano), Annemarie Kremer (soprano), Petra Labitzka (soprano), Alena Leja (soprano), Isabelle Müller-Kant (soprano), Brigit Wegemann (soprano), Eibe Möhlmann (alto), Birgit Meyer (alto), Barbara Werner (alto), Gabriele Wunderer (alto), Gerhard Hölze (tenor), Gerhard Nennemann (tenor), Daniel Sans (tenor), Robert Morvai (tenor), Raimund Spogis (baritone), Manfred Bittner (bass), Christof Fischesser (bass), Philip Niederberger (bass), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass)
Chamber Choir of Europe
Württemburg Philharmonie/Nicol Matt
Rec 2002, Kloster Bronnbach; Studio der Württemburgischen Reutlingen


This welcome issue of nicely recorded recent performances from Germany reinforces my view that Mendelssohn is too often represented by the same few pieces which are not necessarily his best. Of course the Scottish and Italian Symphonies, to name but two examples, are splendid works in their own right, but relatively speaking they are over-played and over-recorded, and the composer did better elsewhere: in chamber music and in vocal works such as these.

Yet this collection is no more than a representative sample of a field in which Mendelssohn was prolific. Besides that there are the larger works, such as the oratorios and the setting of Goethe's Die erste Walpurgisnacht. However, these smaller pieces often find him at his most inspired.

Presiding over proceedings is the accomplished conductor Nicol Matt, who has an innate feel for balance, tempo and phrasing. The recordings are reliable and the sound is what we have come to expect of recent recording equipment and techniques.

While these compositions are unlikely to rank among what we might call ‘Mendelssohn’s major masterpieces’, they show consummate taste and artistry. Of course the quality is not necessarily even, but it is always professional and accomplished. Take, for example, Lauda Sion, the composer’s largest setting of a Latin text. The taste and artistry are second to none, if the invention is not necessarily the most penetrating, The orchestral-vocal balances are beautifully handled, and the performance is therefore most rewarding.

The set claims to be complete, and the unaccompanied Psalm settings from 1830 show once again how distinguished a composer was the young Mendelssohn. The earlier still pieces from the 1820s, such as the beautifully contrived setting of the Gloria, confirm this point more strongly still. If you are looking for a child genius composer, don’t look for Mozart, look for Mendelssohn. An astonishing phenomenon, to be sure.

Perhaps some of the more ambitious concepts find Mendelssohn stretching to the limits of his inspiration and technique, Opinions will vary about the success of the Opus 42 Psalm setting with which the set opens. The style is urbane, the delivery sophisticated, but are the ideas entirely penetrating?

The various solo singers emerge from the ranks of the chorus, as is appropriate. They are all talented and musical: among the best performances are those of the tenor Daniel Sans (the Lauda Sion is particularly good) and the bass Manfred Bittner, whose performance of the aria in Psalm 115 is memorable.

The three Motets (disc 10) are particularly appealing, fresh and direct, while other gems include the Psalms for unaccompanied chorus from Opus 78. There is some beautiful invention here, and the understanding of the inner workings of a chorus is impressive and subtle.

The Chorale Cantatas inevitably show the influence of Bach, and several of their movements are reworkings of Lutheran chorales that will be familiar to today’s listener from their deployment in the St Matthew Passion, as well as in the English Hymnal. For this set of seemingly unknown byways of Mendelssohn’s prolific output is a treasury of fine things. Of course it is intended as a library addition rather than as essential daily listening, but more than anything else it goes to show the danger of thinking that ‘music we don’t know is music we don’t need to know’. This worthwhile set enhances our understanding of Mendelssohn as a great composer, and it deserves praise for that worthy achievement alone, though its strengths go beyond any single dimension.

The packaging is well organised, though the documentation is uneven. Opus numbers are not always listed, for example, nor are dates of composition. The standards of presentation, like the performances themselves, are of a high order.

Terry Barfoot


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