MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 52, “Lobgesang” – Christiane Oelze, soprano / Simona Šaturová, soprano / Ian Bostridge, tenor / Chorus sine nomine / Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterrich / Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Preiser Records multichannel SACD PR 90796 (Distr. Albany), 64:06 ****1/2:
Music lovers of the twenty-first century have heard a number of works dubbed by their creators—and accepted by audiences—as symphonies that earlier generations of listeners would not have accepted as such. After the Third and Eighth Symphonies of Mahler, one could say that almost anything goes in the modern symphony, yet it’s still possible to carp over a work such as Shostakovich’s Third or Villa-Lobos’s Tenth: is this a symphony or a cantata? Or is it neither fish nor foul? Well, imagine the consternation that critics had over their first hearing of Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (“Hymn of Praise”). Probably sensitive to such reactions before the fact, the composer coined the term “symphony cantata” for his work. The reason is obvious: comparisons would immediately be drawn between this “symphony” and Beethoven’s Ninth. But Mendelssohn was right to suggest that his work was a hybrid: Beethoven’s work was clearly planned as a symphony with a choral finale, while Mendelssohn’s is a choral work with an instrumental introduction, the choral fourth movement taking up more than half the length of the piece.
While I don’t like to second-guess a master, perhaps Lobgesang would have raised fewer critical hackles, and been more successful, if Mendelssohn had been less insistent on his symphonic aspirations for the work. Maybe he should have ditched the scherzo—a sober little movement that is the least like a Mendelssohn scherzo of any he wrote—and shortened the following Adagio religioso so that it merely introduced, by way of intermezzo, the air of spiritual introspection he obviously wanted to create before launching into the choral finale. Then again, Mendelssohn didn’t ask my advice, and the piece has been performed and recorded to acclaim since its creation in 1840. So maybe I should butt out and just provide a background to the piece. . . .
The symphony was conceived as the capstone of a celebration in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. In Protestant Europe, of course, this had signal spiritual significance since it made possible the widespread dissemination of the Bible for the first time. Hence the choice of texts from the Lutheran Bible in Mendelssohn’s work: the bulk is derived from the Old Testament, from Psalms and Isaiah, but with a couple of choice passages as well from Ephesians and Romans.
The central section of the movement is the sixth number, Sticke des Todes hatten uns umfangen (“The chains of death bound us”), which includes the famous passage from Isaiah 21, “We cried in the darkness and said, / Watchman, is the night nigh spent?” This is one of the most eerily dramatic pieces that Mendelssohn ever wrote, with its strange tritone intervals and dissonant intrusions from the woodwind. The passage is followed by the blazing choral number Die Nacht ist vergangen (“The night is past”), its hopeful text taken from Romans 13. Whether Mendelssohn’s inspiration is the Enlightenment values of Goethe and his own grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, or Lutheran Christianity, the final movement maps a progression from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, thus praising Gutenberg’s great contribution to Western civilization.
As in Mendelssohn’s oratorios Paulus and Elijah, there is a brief recourse to Lutheran hymnody: the eighth number is a lovely harmonization of Nun danket alle Gott. Here, Mendelssohn’s intent seems to be to indicate that the hope of enlightenment is shared by all peoples, just as in a Lutheran church service the chorale would have been sung by the congregation.
As we’d expect, not withstanding my earlier animadversions regarding the potential “improvement” of Lobgesang, the symphony shows Mendelssohn’s usual fastidious attention to architectural details. Besides the plan of the finale, which skillfully charts the aforementioned movement from darkness to light, Mendelssohn includes an important idée fixe, the solemn yet hopeful chorale-like theme in the trombones that appears at the very beginning of the work. This returns in every movement, including, most tellingly, at the beginning and end of the fourth movement—a kind of affirmation of an intelligent plan to both the world and the work before us.
Speaking of intelligent, I think that’s an adjective that could properly be used to describe the current performance. The first movement, the best of Mendelssohn’s orchestral ones, is here presented with a fresh, dramatic fervor. The following orchestral bits—not Mendelssohn at his finest—proceed with as much importance as we can expect from them. But then conductor Orozco-Estrada shapes the complex choral movement with a deft hand. It’s very nicely held together, the logic of its argument clear and forceful. The conductor has expert help from his soloists, especially Ian Bostridge, whose clean, light tenor voice is not just the perfect instrument for German Lieder but can be used to dramatic effect as well. I’ve never heard a more compelling delivery of Die Nacht ist vergangen.
I’ve admired the work of Preiser’s engineers in their live recording of Schumann’s Manfred, and this Lobgesang is just about as fine. I might have wished for the trombones to be just a touch more forward, given that they introduce the chief motive of the work, but for the most part balances are judicious, the performers are very present, and few of the unfortunate artifacts of a live performance are in evidence. In short, this is as fine a job as many studio SACD recordings. If you’re a Mendelssohn fan, you probably have a favored version of this symphony in your collection. If you don’t have an SACD version, however, you owe it to yourself to hear Orozco-Estrada’s. I highly recommend it.
A 10-year anniversary of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society gets a welcome vinyl upgrade.