MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 52 “Lobgesang” – Christiane Karg and Christina Landshamer, sop./ Michael Schade, tenor/ Chorus and Orch. of Bavarian Radio/ Pablo Heras-Casado – Harmonia mundi HMC 902151, 61:48 (3/11/14) ****:  

The 1840 quadri-centenary of movable type by Gutenberg led civic leaders in Leipzig to commission Mendelssohn – via the Gewandhaus Orchestra Association – to create a celebratory symphony-cantata in honor of the occasion, which simultaneously pays homage to the Reformation movement. The designation by the composer, Symphonie-Cantate, indicates overtly Mendelssohn’s awareness of his ostensive model, Beethoven’s Ninth – to which Mendelssohn’s hybrid would be invidiously compared – but also the J.S. Bach tradition of vocal chorale and fugal composition, and the rather intimate blending of ‘concert’ and ‘domestic’ music. In his attempt to through-compose this work into an aesthetic unity, Mendelssohn employs an opening trombone motif – present in all but the Adagio religioso movement – that responds in antiphon with the full orchestra, eventually to accompany the revelation of God’s word in the last movement, “All that has breath, praise the Lord.” Finally, the trombone motif closes the cantata, attaching the cyclical impulse that Romantics find compelling after the advent of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Certainly, Mendelssohn invokes the legacy of sacred music that extends from Bach and Handel through Berlioz, Schubert and Schumann. Mendelssohn’s first three movements of his grandiose scheme he entitles Sinfonia, a symphonic prelude to the larger Cantate section, itself divided into nine choruses, arias, and recitatives. Conductor Heras-Casado (rec. June 2012, Munich) hustles the opening Maestoso con moto through its severely athletic and polyphonic rigors, the music’s lofty Handelian chords’ often resembling tropes from the Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The ensuing Allegretto un poco agitato projects a lilting waltz-like theme in which the woodwinds and strings banter in flowing colloquy. The theme bears a kinship with the opening tune of the Scottish Symphony, Op. 56. Its Trio section asserts the trombone motif once more in a distinctly chorale character: Nun danket alle Gott, which later appears in the G Major section 8 of the cantata proper.

The Adagio religioso receives a luminous patina from conductor Heras-Casado, the melody in itself intense and imaginatively scored in a manner that might have influenced Sibelius. The modulations in this slow movement already adumbrate the Manichean transposition of spiritual darkness to revealed light, especially as Gutenberg may be said to have made flesh the idea that “in the beginning was the Word.”

The opening of the Cantate gallops the trombone theme forward, and the Chorus intones with remarkable clarity the demand that all living things shall praise God, a grandly exuberant moment of writing that should dispel the idea that Mendelssohn means to remain a mere epigone of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony.  The music has assumed a grandeur commensurate with Handel’s oratorios, especially as the texts borrow heavily from Psalms. Lyrical vocal soloists extend the hymn of praise – savor the marvelous soprano duet with French horn and male chorus, “Ich harrete des Herrn” – until the C Minor mid-point, the Section Six tenor Aria and Recitative based on Psalm 116, “Stricke des Todes hatten uns vergangen,” the immanence of spiritual death (in a dire F Minor) that reduces the prior Credo to mere wishful thinking.  The tenor inquires, “Hueter, ist die Nacht bald hin?” (Watchman, is the night soon past?) Blazing tremolos from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra threaten our faith until the soprano answers, “Die Nacht ist vergangen!” The night of ignorance literally flies apart in D Major ecstasies, polyphonic and exalted as only a vision of redemption (from Romans 13:12) can attest.

In typical Bach fashion, Mendelssohn invokes a diaphanous chorale from Martin Rinckart, “Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen, Mund und Haenden,” whose antique a cappella sonority intensifies the sacred affect. Winds, strings and rolling tympani romanticize the effect, especially at “Lob Ehr und Preis sei Gott, dem Vater und dem Sohne.” Lovely diminuendos from the choral forces. Another duet, from tenor and soprano, “Drum sing ich mit meinem Liede ewig dein Lob,” asserts eternal devotion to sing praises to the Lord, similar to Daniel’s faith in the darkness of the dungeon of his enemies.  Mendelssohn then splices Psalms 96 and 150 with I Chronicles 16: 8-10 to extol all peoples to give thanks, no matter their worldly degree. The fugal chorus embraces the initial trombone motif, and the circle of faith has healed itself, through the agency of Gutenberg, a monument to the German Reformation and to the supremacy of universal intellectual vitality.

Kudos to engineer Klemens Kamp and his assistants for a glorious sound quality, for rarely has Mendelssohn’s message achieved such a clarion precision of diction and emotion.

—Gary Lemco