Incidental music: Antigone [55:27], Oedipus [50:33], Athalia [63:19]
René Pape (bass)
Therese Hämer (Antigone)
Klaus Piontek (Creon)
Otto Sander (Oedipus)
Berliner Rundfunkchor
Männerchor 'Carl Maria von Weber'
Radio Symphony Orchester, Berlin/Stefan Soltesz (Antigone and Oedipus at Colonnus); Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering (Athalia)
rec. 1991-2002, Berlin, Köln. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94216 [3 CDs: 55:27 + 50:33 + 63:19]

These rare examples of Mendelssohn's music for the theatre encompass Sophocles and Racine and date from his last vintage decade. Allowing for the composer's signature style they were written within the conventions of the first half of the nineteenth century and the romantic movement. It took later generations to lay tragedy and violence raw and bare. As it is we are in the same league as Beethoven's Egmont and Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

Malcolm Macdonald's notes are one of the selling points of this label. we get a generously informative essay from which I learnt that Mendelssohn had written music for some 15 theatrical productions of which only that to Midsummer Nights Dream has achieved fame.

Antigone is a chiaroscuro of eight movements, all with orchestra, but with elements of oration, solo singing and male choral contributions. As elsewhere the choirs deliver the utmost clarity. There’s a male choir in Antigone throughout. One can pick up aspects of a Wedding March in track 7. The character of the plot is indulged in the actors rather than in the choir. In the last movement very original woodwind trills add frisson and shudder. It’s a very original touch repeated in the stern march elements of the score.

Oedipus at Colonnus includes the bird-song bedecked and sweetly undulant Zur rossprangenden Flur, O freund rising to glorious passionate orchestral violins at 3:40. These are immaculately prepared and presented performances. Ach war ich is redolent of the Pilgrim's March from the Italian Symphony and the equivalent march from the Scotch. The balladeer’s harp adds another tint to this fine score in the Wer ein langeres. The conspiratorial night trudge carries over into Auf uns bricht. The Er ist verstattet movement's halting address only adds to the overcast allure of the piece. Weh uns has a slightly uncanny supernatural air and the interplay between the voice of Antigone and the male voice choir, always suave yet manly even in the softest of poetry, adds tangily to this grand experience. The final scene, Weh uns ends in the grandest possible manner. Orations are resoundingly delivered and are acted with glowing conviction. One cannot fault this. One may only complain if one does not like the mix of music and spoken word in which case, pilgrim, pass this set. But that would be a pity given the glowing quality of the music.

René Pape in the two Sophocles scores is stern and mellifluous. Soltesz's orchestra and choirs appear well coached and the recording is up to excellent Capriccio standards.

Athalia was recorded a decade after the Sophocles discs. This is more closely recorded and orchestral details take place very much under the nose of the listener. You quickly adjust to its immediacy. The recording was made in Köln's radio studios. There is greater romantic turbulence in this score with Schumann being a clear influence and the harp much on show in the overture and elsewhere including the Lasst uns movement. There is only one spoken voice here, that of Dirk Schortemeier. The difference is that when he speaks there is no orchestra - he provides the narrative nexus. It's a reversal of the pattern in the Sophocles projects with one spoken voice and four female soloists. Herz durch die ganzes welt has some truly sweet chiming together of those four voices. Mendelssohn is such a poet of the voice and the same can be picked up in the summery zephyrs of the antiphonally laid out female and male voices of the O sent welch ein stern. The stirring and sometimes stern yet not specially original War March of the Priests will be well enough known having been extracted for other concerts and collections. Truth to tell it is a little repetitive and by no means the finest of this composer. The comforts of convention rather than inspiration also arch over the finale but these are two exceptions to music that is generally poetic, poignant and plangently romantic for all lovers of the Mendelssohn oratorios, overtures and symphonies. Spering is every bit as effective as Soltesz.

The sung and spoken words are not in the booklet. That said Mr Macdonald provides a synopsis of the plotline though not track-related. All the spoken and sung contributions are in German.

I wonder if the performing materials for the other theatre music is as readily available for new recording projects. I hope so. It gives every sign of meriting a complete Edition. Until then do not hold back. Just think: some two hours and fifteen minutes of new and vintage Mendelssohn! The chamber music has enjoyed a great renaissance over the last decade or so. Now the theatrical Mendelssohn beckons. On this evidence these scores include much music of delightful quality. These are pleasing recordings.

Rob Barnett

Something of an event and unmissable if you are a devoted Mendelssohnian or an impassioned researcher of German romantic theatre music.