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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Oratorios
St Paul, Op.36 (1834-36)
María Cristina Kiehr (soprano); Werner Güra (tenor); Michael Volle (bass); Patrick Pobeschin; Adolph Seidel (bass); Sigrun Maria Bornträger (alto)
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; Kammerchor Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
Elijah, Op.70 (1846)
Letizia Scherrer (soprano); María Cristina Kiehr (soprano); Renée Morloc (contralto); Werner Güra (tenor); Michael Volle (bass)
Klassiche Philharmonie Stuttgart; Kammerchor Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
Christus, Op.97 (1844-47; torso)
Dorothea Rieger (soprano); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Johannes-Chr. Happel (baritone); Cornelius Hauptmann (bass)
Mitglieder der Bamberger Symphoniker; Kammerchor Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. September 2005, Forum Ludwigsburg (St Paul); January 2007, Evangelische Stadkirche, Schwaigern (Elijah); May 1987, Südwest-Tonstudio, Stuttgart (Christus)
German texts and English translations
CARUS 83.021 [4 CDs: 70:02 + 74:16 + 65:23 + 63:22]

Carus has very sensibly decided to collate the two main oratorio recordings - St Paul and Elijah - and add the Christus torso to form a neat 4-CD box. None of the performances are new. In fact Christus was recorded as long ago as 1987. The better-known oratorios are much more recent, given that St Paul dates from 2005, and Elias (or Elijah in English)from 2007.
 
Interesting though this may or may not be, it would matter very little if the performances were not so very fine. Once again Frieder Bernius proves something of an undersung master. I really do think - and I in no way wish to suggest that it’s an obscure label, when clearly it isn’t - but that if Bernius recorded for a bigger or sexier company than Carus he would be something of a household name, rather than a connoisseur’s or collector’s choice. I’ve seldom heard him put a foot wrong in the studio or in live recordings. He has a wide range of musical interests and cultivates strong ensemble discipline, but a spontaneous sounding freedom with his chosen bands and choirs. Why don’t more people know his name?
 
Those who do can be grateful, in fact, that he and Carus work so harmoniously and intelligently together. This St Paul is first-class in every way. Listening to the performance you do wonder whether it’s not superior to Elijah - I think it is, if such things matter - or whether it’s the superiority of the conducting and singing that transports one into thinking so. The orchestral playing is richly sensitive, the Bachian chorale allusions are adeptly pointed but not fetishized, and the choral forces are crisp, clear and rhythmically alive. With bright brass tone, and excellent percussion the music’s orchestral tapestries - embracing both drama and consolation - come over expertly. Maria Christina Kiehr, Werner Güra and Michael Volle are the three vocal soloists - Kiehr, a soprano, takes the solo ‘But the Lord is mindful’ and very well too, though contraltos would doubtless be looking on greedily, were the contralto voice not now almost extinct. With an excellent balance, this is an admirable contribution to St Paul on disc, one of the very best you’ll find anywhere.
 
These virtues are reprised in Elijah, where the vehemence and drama that coursed through St Paul are even more focused and concentrated into elemental moments. To these Bernius responds with vital imagination, sure pacing and a careful balance between solo voices and orchestra. There are no ‘stand and deliver’ solos, such as used to be the case in the more Edwardian recordings of the Greatest Hits from the oratorio - ‘Lord God of Abraham’, I suppose, most obviously. Anglophones accustomed to English-language performances may wish to stick with their chosen few. This Bernius recording ensures that the score is seamlessly logical and wholly musical and once again he has the soloists to carry through his vision - Letizia Scherrer and Renée Morloc join the singers already cited above. None has an outsize delivery; none overbalances his colleagues, either through the use of obtrusive vibrato or stylistic incongruity. There is a shared purpose, determined, I’m sure, by Bernius himself.
 
Christus is a twenty-minute torso but there is considerable nobility in what is there, and we have some truly superior singing, in particular, from Dorothea Rieger and Christoph Prégardien.
 
If you want the two main oratorios in a handy set, then Bernius offers a perfect solution. Elijah has a long history on disc and no one performance offers everything. That said, Bernius offers more than almost everyone. This is a terrific box, and testimony to the virtues of hard work, application, imagination and individual and corporate excellence. Lucky Stuttgart.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Dominy Clements  


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