MENDELSSOHN: Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95; The Fair Melusine, Op. 32; Hebrides Overture, Op. 26; Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60 – Birgit Remmer, alto / Jörg Dümüller, tenor / Reinhard Mayr, bass / Zürcher Sing-Akademie / Musikkollegium Winterthur / Douglas Boyd – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MDG90119496 (2+2+2), 64:26 [Distr. by eOne] ****:
An interesting Mendelssohn program made more interesting by the choice of edition used for the Ruy Blas performance.
This program includes three of Mendelssohn’s finest concert overtures, a genre the composer specialized in. Concert overtures were a favorite form of early Romantic composers, giving them the opportunity to express literary ideas in music. But whereas the Lisztian tone poem is more specific in its pictorialism, the concert overture creates a tone painting, using broader strokes. For instance, we know from the first notes of Ruy Blas that the subject is tragic, and we know from the brilliant coda that ends the work that the tragedy has a semi-happy ending. Yet even if we’re familiar with the individual actions of the play, we’re hard pressed to locate them in the overture; Mendelssohn is content to create atmosphere rather than portray individual actions.
Mendelssohn hated Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas. Set in the seventeenth-century, the action centers on a villain who takes revenge on the queen of Spain for spurning his advances. He passes off his indentured servant Ruy, who has a crush on the queen, as a nobleman in the hopes of capturing the queen and the servant in a compromising situation. At the end of the play, Ruy kills his master and then commits suicide. The queen declares her love for the dying Ruy (hence the upbeat conclusion to Mendelssohn’s overture). Despite the composer’s scorn for Hugo’s play, Mendelssohn responded to a commission from the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund for an overture to raise the curtain on a performance of Ruy Blas. The work begins with a darkly powerful six-note motive for winds and brass; the motive returns at start of the development and recapitulation, underscoring the inescapable fate that stalks the title character. It’s a striking gesture.
Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd offers a fine performance of the overture, but the most interesting aspect of his performance is that he apparently uses an alternate version to the one usually heard. There are odd little turns of phrase and unusual modulations that you don’t hear in the preferred version of the work. And the coda is less focused and direct. Unfortunately, the notes to this recording don’t cite the version that Boyd uses. The note writer, however, does mention that the Hebrides Overture, composed in 1830, went through three revisions before taking final form in 1835. For those who consider Mendelssohn a facile composer, the fact that Mendelssohn constantly revised his most prized compositions (he was never pleased with his revisions of the Italian Symphony) should give the lie to those who consider Mendelssohn is a facile dilettante.
The Fair Melusine depicts the legend of a water spirit who marries a knight, lives with him in the human world, and then returns to her watery home when the knight breaks his promise to her. Mendelssohn’s overture appropriately starts and ends with an undulant theme that, according to note writer Severin Kolb, Wagner emulated in his portrayal of the river Rhine at the start of Das Rhinegold.
More literary references in The First Walpurgisnacht, based on a dramatic poem by Goethe. The poem tells the story of the opposition between Druids and Christians in Dark Ages Germany. The new Christian rulers have forbade the celebration of May Day, but the Druids, wanting to recommence their May Day rituals, dress up like witches and evil spirits in order to scare away their Christian oppressors. True to Mendelssohn’s penchant for revision, the composer worked on his original 1830 work, publishing it only in 1844.
Some scholars speculate that Mendelssohn’s attachment to Goethe’s poem shows that the German composer was not entirely content with his family’s conversion to Christianity. The First Walpurgisnacht pokes fun at the hidebound Christians who try to wreck the Druids’ party, perhaps suggesting Mendelssohn’s situation as an outsider forced to conform to the ways of a Christian community. Maybe this is true, but the most important thing is the commanding music he wrote to Goethe’s text. The music begins with a dramatic overture depicting the transition from winter to spring, making the piece’s inclusion on a program of Mendelssohn overtures apropos. The choral writing is dramatic throughout, yet Mendelssohn manages to capture the humor of the trick the Druids play on their oppressors. The chorus “Kommt mit Zacken und hit Gabeln” (“Come with prongs and pitchforks”) is mockingly portentous, with a skirling piccolo, crashing cymbals, and thudding bass drum. Berlioz rightly called Die Erste Walpurgisnacht a classic of musical Romanticism—and after all, Berlioz and Mendelssohn rarely saw eye to eye on any matter.
Douglas Boyd’s performance is an excellent one. His orchestra plays with power and brio, while his vocal soloists and chorus are all in fine voice seeming to relish their role as feisty Druids. There are many fine recordings of Mendelssohn’s classic, but none that I know of recorded in SACD, so this excellent performance fills a niche. All in all, it’s an excellent program of the best of orchestral and choral Mendelssohn.
The recording is fine as well, especially that of the choral piece. The sound is crystal clear, with excellent presence, though maybe slightly lacking in bloom. It doesn’t really open up as well as other MDG recordings I’ve heard; this might be a function of the hall, Stadthaus Winterthur, which seems to have a dry acoustic. A small matter, however. If the program appeals, I think you will be happy with this disc.