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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No 2, Lobgesang, Op. 52 (1840)
Judith van Wanroij (soprano); Machteld Baumans (soprano); Patrick Henckens (tenor)
Consensus Vocalis; The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 19-20 December 2011, 5, 7 July 2012, Muziekcentrum, Enschede, Holland. DSD
German texts included
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72543 [62:36]

This is announced as the first volume in a projected Mendelssohn symphony cycle by Jan Willem de Vriend and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. De Vriend became chief conductor of the orchestra in 2006. Prior to that he had made his name as a specialist in period performance, mainly of pre-Classical music, with Combattimento Consort Amsterdam. I believe his work with that ensemble continues. My previous encounter with his work on disc was in a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Combattimento Consort; I enjoyed that very much (review). De Vriend and his orchestra have already embarked together on a Beethoven symphony cycle. Several volumes have been reviewed by some of my colleagues, who have had mixed views about them with Dominy Clements particularly enthusiastic (review review review review).
 
I imagine that prior to De Vriend’s arrival The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra was a conventional modern symphony orchestra but it seems that under his leadership the orchestra has embraced period practices in the performance of Classical repertoire. It’s not entirely clear to me from the slightly ambiguous booklet information how far this process has gone. In the conductor’s biography we’re told that “by substituting period instruments in the brass section, [the orchestra] has developed its own distinctive sound in the 18th and 19th century repertoire.” Elsewhere in the booklet, however, there’s a reference to the orchestra’s “use of period instruments in the Classical repertoire.” I’m unclear, therefore, whether period wind and string instruments are employed or whether the players in these sections content themselves with adopting period techniques on modern instruments – there’s a singular absence of string vibrato, for example. Greater clarity on these matters would be welcome, especially if the musicians are going to the trouble of trying to recreate a period style. It can’t be the easiest thing for orchestral musicians to chop and change between period and modern performance practices.
 
What I can say for certain is that this performance is characterised by a lean, muscular style across all sections of the orchestra. The orchestral timbres are light and clear though the ensemble is capable of sufficient weight where necessary. The lightness extends to the choral contributions also, though the choir produces adequate volume when required. Again, there’s no real detail about the size of the choir though I counted just 23 singers in the photograph that’s included in the booklet. It would appear that Consensus Vocalis, a semi-professional ensemble, specialises in pre-Classical music.
 
Mendelssohn entitled his Second Symphony Eine Symphonie-Kantate nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift. It was commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and was first performed in Leipzig. The rather poorly written – or translated – booklet notes tell us that the work “faded into obscurity” and then, a moment later, that it “has been a great success and has been counted among Mendelssohn’s best compositions.” Well, which is it? Neglected or highly successful? The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. One problem with is that it is neither fish nor fowl. The vocal part of the work is substantial but, as I recall from having sung in it, you do have to wait quite a while for the singers to join in the proceedings – or so it seems.
 
In fact, the three purely orchestral movements play for some 24 minutes in this performance, which is far shorter than the equivalent movements in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unfortunately, in these movements Mendelssohn’s material and his development of it isn’t nearly as interesting as Beethoven’s. Nor, indeed, are these movements as involving as are, for example, his Third or Fourth symphonies. The second and third movements are rather inconsequential, I fear. That said, Jan Willem de Vriend and his players make a jolly good case for all this music; the consistently nimble touch helps greatly. The playing is lithe and athletic in the first movement, which is, by some distance, the longest of the three, and the brass playing is punchy without being over heavy. The strings and wind display lightness and grace in the second and third movements.
 
The extended choral finale is well done and I applaud Challenge Classics for providing no fewer than 18 separate tracks. The soloists do well. It’s not made clear which soprano is singing which part but I presume that Judith van Wanroij is Soprano I and does most of the singing; it sounds that way. The two ladies duet effectively in ‘Ich harrete des Herrn’ (track 10) and the soprano in ‘Lobe des Herrn, meine Seele’ (track 6), who I take to be Miss van Wanroij, makes a good showing though her vibrato causes her to spread her top notes slightly. Patrick Henckens is an attractive-sounding tenor and he strikes the right dramatic note in the recitative-like solo, ‘Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen’ (tracks 11-13). The choral singing is crisp and clear; though the body of singers sounds to be chamber-sized this sound is in keeping with the overall style of the performance. I didn’t feel that the choir, as recorded, were under-resourced. The choir is incisive in such passages as ‘Ihr Völker’ (track 19) and the unaccompanied chorale, ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ (track 16) is very well sung. Incidentally, this same choir was involved in de Vriend’s recording of the Beethoven Ninth (review).
 
As for the orchestra, the positive qualities noted in the three purely instrumental movements persist throughout the remainder of the work. Jan Willem de Vriend paces the various sections of the finale shrewdly. I particularly appreciate the energy he brings to the music, even when the tempo is not fast; there is no stuffiness or sentimentality about this. This symphony may not consistently display Mendelssohn at his best but this performance is a successful launch for de Vriend’s cycle.
 
The recorded sound is very good – I listened to this disc in CD format rather than SACD. The booklet contents, whilst adequate, could be improved and it’s very disappointing that no translations of the German text are provided.
 
John Quinn
 

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