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Die erste Walpurgisnacht (‘The First Walpurgis Night’), op.60 [30:17]
Oedipus in Kolonos (‘Oedipus at Colonus’) op.93 [16:47]
Renée Morloc (alto), David Fischer (tenor), Stephan Genz (baritone), David Jerusalem (bass),
Kammerchor Stuttgart
Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Klassicsche Philharmonie Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. 2004/19, Liederhalle Stuttgart
CARUS 83.503 [47:19]

“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad - when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked”. That was, at least, the view of Bram Stoker in his short story ‘Dracula’s Guest’. The simple facts are a little less lurid; St. Walpurga, though born in Wimborne, Dorset in AD 710, became a Christian missionary to the Frankish Empire, was buried in Heidenheim in South Germany, then canonised in the early 9th century. Mendelssohn’s cantata is based on a poem by Goethe, which tells of conflict between Druids in the Harz mountains and the Christian forces who wish to prevent them celebrating their ancient rites on the Saint’s day – May 1st. The story has a surprisingly humorous twist to it, with the Druids frightening the Christians away by dressing up in all manner of strange Devilish costumes, and thus being able to continue unmolested with their rituals. The young Mendelssohn – just 23 when he completed the initial version of the work – responded well to the essential lightness of the story, and the music is delightful, recalling his Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music of a few years earlier.

This splendid recording is promoted by Carus, the famous German music publishing house, and like many of their recordings, which now run to a sizeable catalogue of mostly but not exclusively German composers. Like many of their recordings, this one is directed by Frieder Bernius, who draws beautiful playing and singing from his various ensembles.

Die erste Walpurgisnacht is quite a short work at just 30 minutes, and is set for four soloists (alto, tenor, baritone and bass), chorus and orchestra. It begins with a fine overture, which depicts the change from Winter to Spring. That leads to the entry of the tenor soloist, David Fischer, who has a gorgeously light, clear voice, and he duets with the similarly youthful tones of the women of the Stuttgart Chamber Choir. The chorus of Druids and People, depicting their scaring of the Christian soldiers, is a splendidly noisy affair, with thumping bass drum and resounding volleys from the timpani. The Christian forces are duly terrified; ‘See them caper’ they cry! Entertaining stuff; but the ending comes rather abruptly, with a chorus in chorale style finishing ‘Though foes shall quell or cloud our light, thy light shall shine for ever’, addressed, presumably, to St. Walpurga! The one disappointment is the rather under-powered baritone of Stephan Genz. Other than that, this is a superb performance of a light-weight but enjoyable piece of early Mendelssohn.

‘Oedipus in Kolon’ is more problematic. The notes in the booklet about this work are by Larry Todd, the eminent American Mendelssohn expert, taken from his book on the composer, which is fine. But unfortunately, the extract appears to be about an entirely different piece of music from the one we have on the CD. He mentions a harp; no audible harp. He describes Mendelssohn’s pervasive use of the interval of the augmented 4th (the ‘tritone’); couldn’t find a single prominent one throughout! So this seems to be an error in the preparation of the booklet, and I shall be trying to find out more from Carus about this apparent blooper.

This is unfamiliar music in any case, and though there are several recordings of Mendelssohn’s score for Sophocles’ play, they have quite different music from that which we have here. On these tracks, we have a sequence of pleasant choruses for divided male chorus and orchestra. Beautifully sung by the fine young men’s voices of Kammerchor Stuttgart; but with the best will in the world, this is not very riveting to listen to. No solos, no moments of true drama, and no recitation of Sophocles’ text. So a mixture of confusion and disappointment I’m afraid, unless I’ve very much got hold of the wrong end of the stick! Still, the main item on this disc is Die erste Walpugisnacht, and the performance of that is well worth hearing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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