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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, ‘Lobgesang’ (Hymn of Praise), Op 52 (1840)
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Jurgita Adamonytė (mezzo-soprano); Michael Spyres (tenor); Monteverdi Choir; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live 16 & 20 October 2016, The Barbican, London. DSD 128fs
German texts and English translations included
Blu-ray audio: 5.1 DTS-HD MA 24bit/192kHz; 2.0 LPCM 24bit/192kHz LSO LIVE LSO0803 BD-A/SACD [64:05]
This is the final instalment in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn series for LSO Live. Previous releases have comprised the Third Symphony (review), the ‘Reformation’ Symphony (review), and the First and ‘Italian’ symphonies coupled together (review). In addition to those symphonies there was a release of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music, which I reviewed and enjoyed very much.
Lindsay Anderson’s notes tell us that in 1840 the city of Leipzig held a three-day festival to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press with moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg (c1400-1468). Though Gutenberg neither lived nor worked in Leipzig I imagine that his invention was very highly regarded there, and throughout Protestant Germany, since printing made possible the much wider dissemination of the Bible, which was a key aim of the Protestant Reformation. The climax of the Leipzig festival was a concert in the Thomaskirche which Mendelssohn was invited to conduct and for which he wrote Lobgesang.
Structurally, it’s quite an odd work and Lindsay Anderson points out that even Mendelssohn didn’t know how to classify it; eventually, at the suggestion of a friend, he dubbed it a ‘symphony-cantata’. One can understand his uncertainty. The work is definitely symphonic in nature and arguably it follows somewhat in the steps of Beethoven’s Ninth. However, the work has less equilibrium than Beethoven’s score, consisting as it does, of three orchestral movements which take about 24 minutes in this performance, followed by an extended cantata-like movement, lasting here for some 40 minutes and divided into a number of sections. Furthermore, the vocal movements don’t contain symphonic development in the way that Beethoven’s finale does. The texts for the vocal movements are drawn from a number of scriptural sources.
I must be honest and say that I don’t find the three purely orchestral movements desperately interesting: the best music lies in the cantata section, I believe. That said, many readers will disagree with that statement and even if you’re inclined to my view I think you’ll find that Gardiner and the LSO make the very best case for these instrumental movements. In the first movement, for example, when Mendelssohn picks up the pace after the broad introduction, Gardiner sets a brisk tempo which invests the music with plenty of life, especially since the LSO are on top form. The Allegretto un poco agitato movement is light on its feet and delicate while the Adagio religioso is beautifully shaped.
Things really get cracking once the vocal sections are reached. The performance benefits enormously from the involvement of the Monteverdi Choir. There are only 44 of them but, my goodness, their singing is incisive. Where the music requires it, they sing with great delicacy but when weight of tone and strength of delivery is called for they really deliver the goods and their singing has great power. Thus the opening of the final chorus, ‘Ihr Völker! bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht’, is riveting, each part entering in turn with ringing conviction. They’re equally impressive in ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen’ while, in a more relaxed vein, they sing with great finesse in ‘Ich harrete des Herrn’.
That latter movement is primarily a duet for the two female soloists. It’s a lovely movement in which Lucy Crowe and the Lithuanian mezzo, Jurgita Adamonytė combine beautifully. Elsewhere Miss Crowe sings ‘Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele’ very nicely and later on makes a very pleasing contribution to the duet with the tenor soloist. I do wish, though, that her words were more consistently clear.
No issues about clarity with tenor, Michael Spyres. Only a few weeks ago he impressed me greatly in Gardiner’s thrilling Proms performance of La Damnation de Faust (review). He makes an equally impressive contribution here; indeed, I think he’s the pick of the soloists. His tone is ringing and exciting, his diction is always clear, and though he rises to the more dramatic passages, such as ‘Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen’ he can also sing with great subtlety. He’s splendid in the duet ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede’
The whole performance has great conviction: Gardiner clearly believes in the symphony. Top-class playing and singing mean that this is a terrific version of a piece which is something of a Cinderella work in Mendelssohn’s oeuvre. Gardiner and his team have done it proud and this is a fine conclusion to their Mendelssohn cycle - though I’d love to hear Gardiner, the LSO and Monteverdi Choir tackle Elijah.
This performance has been preserved on disc in very good sound. I listened mostly to the BD-A disc, using the 2.0 LPCM stereo option, and I obtained excellent results. I sampled the SACD as well and I don’t think anyone buying this set who doesn’t have a Blu-ray player will feel short-changed in the slightest. Both options give very good reproduction. The soloists are well balanced against the orchestra, all sections of the LSO are reported very faithfully and the choral singing has genuine impact.