MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 2 in B flat Major "Lobgesang" – Soloists/ Bergen Philharmonic Choir/ Bergen Vocal Ensemble/ Danish National Vocal Ensemble/ Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Litton – BIS Multichannel SACD-1704, 63:05 **** [Distr. by Qualiton]:
Mendelssohn composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1839-1840 as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press. The symphony is actually Mendelssohn’s fourth in compositional order. Over the years he had steeped himself in Bach’s music – a rediscovery he was instrumental in initiating with his 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion – and it is evident in his increased facility with counterpoint and the greater complexity in vocal part writing. The symphony is subtitled a ‘Hymn of Praise’ and it is the religious outcome of Guttenberg’s achievement, his publication of the first printed Bible, that Mendelssohn had in mind during the work’s composition. The symphony contains three instrumental movements that are played without interruption followed by a lengthy nine movement cantata.
This symphony has a similar seriousness of tone and emotional solemnity to that of the "Reformation" Symphony that Mendelssohn composed ten years earlier. Brasses are almost Wagnerian as they lend their weight to the work. The choruses are rich and darkly hued as they alternately proclaim praise to God and portray the reality of our bleak destiny of death. There isn’t a trace of irony in the way that Mendelssohn paints these antipodes of our nature, something that may uniquely exemplify the 19th Century. Mendelssohn’s music has all of the requisite grandeur and beauty given its obvious debt to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It is a magnificent work that is unfortunately little known in comparison to the ubiquitous 4th Symphony "The Italian".
Andrew Litton does a splendid job in uniting all of the disparate forces in this huge work. The result is a live performance that is unified in tone and always appropriate in its emotional response; especially to the various Psalms that constitute the concluding cantata’s libretto. The Bergen Philharmonic plays this music with confidence. The strings are especially expressive, acting as a kind-of divine chorus in the instrumental sections. The soloists and choirs are all quite good. What I missed in this live performance was an even greater sense of urgency, a feeling of humanity’s vulnerability before God’s judgment and our anxiety over its outcome. These strong emotions can be found in both Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the work’s twin models. Despite the slightly attenuated nature of this performance it is definitely worthy of adding to one’s Mendelssohn collection.
This is a live performance that has a forceful immediacy in the multichannel high resolution recording. The BIS engineers have provided this SACD with great warmth and presence, especially in the voices and strings. Sometimes the choirs sound a bit distant and the winds a little weak but considering that it’s a live recording of such vast forces one can hardly expect perfection. Boosting the volume is especially effective.
— Mike Birman