Saturday, 21 March 2015

Mendelssohn in Birmingham Volume 3

Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to England in 1840 was one of his shortest. He arrived in London on 18 September and two days later headed to Birmingham on the recently opened (1838) railway. On 22 September he played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor BVW 543 on the Town Hall organ. The following day saw the performance of the English language version of the Hymn of Praise. After the concert he gave a private organ recital. In the evening, Mendelssohn was soloist in his Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor. Other appearances at the Festival included the Overture: Midsummer’s Night Dream and his setting of Psalm 144. The composer returned to London on 26 September.
The Lobgesang ‘Hymn of Praise was composed in Leipzig during 1840 to celebrate the fourth centennial of the invention of printing. At the same time, Mendelssohn also wrote the largely forgotten Festgesang Gutenberg Cantata. The present Symphony is subtitled in the score as ‘A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible…’ and requires two soprano soloists as well as a choir and orchestra. The text does not form a narrative nor have any ‘dramatic significance.’ In fact, they are a collection of biblical texts ‘evoking the spiritual progression from patience and darkness to illumination framed by psalms of praise.’ These words are presented in a series of choruses, solo recitatives and arias. The symphony is in two distinct parts – a three movement ‘sinfonia’ for orchestra alone followed by a nine-movement cantata.
The ‘Hymn of Praise was well received in Birmingham, with the audience spontaneously rising to its feet at the start of the choral section ‘Nun danket alle Gott,’ (Let all men praise the Lord) an honour normally restricted to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in Handel’s Messiah.
The work was deemed by many concert-goers at the time to have been specifically composed for the Birmingham Festival. However, it had been premiered some three months earlier on 25 June 1840 in Leipzig.
The liner notes remind the listener of the chronological problems inherent in Mendelssohn’s symphony. The traditional numbering does not give an accurate picture. In fact the order they were composed in was 1, 5, 4, 2 & 3. So the Lobgesang ‘Hymn of Praise was the composer’s penultimate essay in this form.
I believe that The Overture: A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage is the least popular of Mendelssohn’s concert overtures and compared to the Hebrides or the Midsummer Night’s Dream receives less concert performances and recordings.  The work is bi-partite and illustrates two contrasting poems by Goethe, ‘The Calm Sea’ and ‘A Prosperous Voyage.’  The opening of the work is a beautiful adagio, which represents the ship becalmed at sea, but after a short flute passage the ‘voyage’ recommences. This is bustling music, no doubt representing ship-board life and the wide ocean.  The second main theme of this section of the work has a gorgeous melody for cello. The overture closes with the ship safely in port with pounding timpanis and a fanfare for trumpets before a short ‘amen’ gives thanks for a safe passage.  It was first heard privately in Berlin on 7 September 1828.
Listeners will recall that Elgar made a musical quotation from this overture in the 13th variation of his ‘Enigma’ Variations.

This is the third volume in a retrospective of Mendelssohn’s music and his connection with Birmingham to appear on the Chandos label. It includes all the Symphonies and a selection of the overtures. I enjoyed the performance of both these works: the standard of playing and the singing is excellent and is matched by a splendid recording.
The liner notes are in two sections: programme notes for the music and an essay on Mendelssohn in Birmingham. The former, by Bayan Northcott gives the listener all they need to understand and enjoy these two great and dramatic works. Gerald Larner has given a brief overview of all the composer’s appearances in the Birmingham. It is a good introduction, but I guess it is really a book-length topic.
There are considerable notices about the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, their conduct Edward Gardner and the soloists. The full text is given in both German and English with this latter translated by J. Alfred Novello (1810-1896).

Listeners will all have their favourite Mendelssohn symphonies. Mine is the ‘Scottish’ followed by the ‘Italian’. The number of recordings available on Arkiv catalogue (accessed on 20 February 2015), indicates to a large extent their relative popularity: No.1 (38) No.2 (42), No.3 ‘Scottish’ (109), No.4 ‘Italian’ (151) and No.5 ‘Reformation’ (66). If I am honest, although I enjoyed the ‘Hymn of Praise,’ I do feel that the symphony is a little contrived – the fact that it is two pieces ‘stuck’ together. That being said, I believe that this is a work that deserves more attention (and performances) than it currently receives. Notwithstanding my reservations concerning the work’s formal characteristics, it is full of lyrical melodies and exiting and involved choruses. There is considerable self-referencing throughout the work with thematic transformation and superb musical workmanship. 

Track Listings:-
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) op.27 (1832/34)
Symphony No.2, op.52 ‘Hymn of Praise’ (Lobgesang) (1840)
Sophie Bevan (soprano) Mary Bevan (soprano) Benjamin Hulett (tenor) CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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