MENDELSSOHN: Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60; BRAHMS: Naenie, Op. 82; SCHUMANN: Der Koenigssohn, Op. 116 – Simone Schroeder, soprano/Burkhard Fritz, tenor/Detlef Roth, baritone/Franz-Josef Selig, bass/Audi Jugendchorakademie /Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Kent Nagano – Farao Classics B 108059, 70:39 [Distr. By Qualiton] ****:
Mendelssohn, who knew Goethe’s Faust and that poet’s 1799 “The First Walpurgis Night,” in 1831 during travels in Italy set to compose a cantata that would explore his capacity to depict pagan as well as Christian scenes utilizing chorus, soli, and orchestra – almost a dramatic complement for his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. May 1 traditionally receives homage as the time when–to quote Heine–“ancient heathen gods, who after Christ’s victory had to retreat into sub-terrestrial hiding. . .[come forth] to go about their demonic mischief.” A two-part Overture breaks forth in a storm on the Brocken–in the Harz mountains–to proceed to signs of spring. The seventh movement in which the Chorus of Watchers to the Druid festival exhort, “Come with prong, and come with fork” unleashes Mendelssohn’s fertile, fantastical imagination, and the scoring becomes quite vivid. The pagan and pantheistic content resembles Hawthorne’s “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” in which Christianity chastened pagan man but not without a cost of an immediate connection to the powers of (demonic) nature. “And if they crush our golden ways,/Whoe’er can crush Thy light?” In this drama, it is the Christians who flee from a ruse perpetrated by the Druids, and the cantata ends with a “humanistic” hymn as a possible path to spiritual enlightenment. Except for a concert inscription by the late Igor Markevitch, this work has not revealed its charms to me very often.
Recorded (30 May 2010) in gorgeous colors, Mendelssohn’s intriguing score receives a loving performance from Nagano and his youthful chorus, assisted by a resplendent Bavarian State Orchestra, whose French horn, woodwind, and string sections flow purest gold. The third movement “Es lacht der Mai” between baritone and chorus could stand alone as crystalline paean to spring, transparent and rhythmically alert: “Extol we now our Father’s name.” The force of Mendelssohn’s writing quite approaches certain passages of Beethoven and even Berlioz, in the flair of the scoring for high winds, trumpets, and trumpets, all brilliantly coordinated with the febrile chorus. Do we hear a touch of the Chorus of Dervishes from Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens? The plaintive call of the Druid Priest (a haunting Detlef Roth) echoes chorale progressions from the Scottish Symphony last movement. The entry of the tenor aria “Hif, ach hif mir, Kriegsgeselle!” easily could be a model for Loki in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The glories of the final movement, “Die Flamme reinigt sich vom Rauch,” can hardly find verbal equivalents, a natural piety.
Brahms set Friedrich Schiller’s “Song of Lament” (Naenie) in 1881 in remembrance of his artist friend Anselm Feuerbach. None of us wishes to descend to Orcus unsung, even if all beauty must perish. The tone of the work remains valedictory and wistful, a soft eulogy for the ephemera of even the hero who must succumb to Time and Fate. Passing references to Orpheus, Odysseus, and Adonis sigh and soar in sweeping phrases that many a veteran chorus would find daunting. The artist provides consolation despite his own vulnerability to mortality, and the high sopranos and harp touch us with aesthetic and all-too-human grief.
Schumann composed his “The Royal Son” around 1853, the first of a trio of choral ballads set to the poems of Ludwig Uhland. At the same time, Schumann had been constantly absorbed in setting sections of Goethe’ Faust. In six parts, the setting of The King’s Son captures a world of fantasy, knights, mythological rescues, and the sea-birth of the hero from Nordic sagas. The hero will embrace a fearful dragon and redeem a curse that held a beautiful woman in thrall. The chorus often provides the effect of the cheering crowd celebrating its victorious favorite son. Falling melodic phrases–somewhat repetitious and borrowing formulas from Weber–set the tone of adventure and the youthful quest for heroic freedom. Nagano treats the score with an ardent dignity and ceremony that quite convince us that more choral groups should program this sturdy testimony to Schumann’s plastic musical imagination.
N.B. The colorful booklet – for all its background literacy – contains no translations of the texts.
— Gary Lemco
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