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