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CD reviews

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Psalms and Motets

Dir.: Marcus Creed

rec: Sep, 1999, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus Kirche
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901740 (56'51")

Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt (Psalm 100); Motets op. 23: Mitten wir im Leben sind, op. 23,3; Motets op. 69 (Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Frieden fahren, op. 69,1; Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt, op. 69,2; Mein Herz erhebet Gott den Herrn, op. 69,3); Motets op. 78 (Warum toben die Heiden, op. 78,1; Richte mich, Gott, op. 78,2; Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen, op. 78,3); Missa breve (Kyrie eleison; Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe; Heilig, heilig, heilig); Zum Abendsegen (Herr, sei gnädig unserm Flehn)

Romanticism and religious music is an odd couple. Whereas most baroque composers devoted a large part of their time to composing religious music, most romantic composers hardly wrote anything religious. And if they did, more often than not it wasn't music which could be performed in church, either because of the texts they used or because of the scale of their works, both in scoring and in length. In many ways Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was an exception. He composed a considerable amount of works on religious texts. On the one hand he was inspired by composers of the past, from Josquin to Bach, on the other hand he was a devote and convinced Protestant, who had a thorough knowledge of the Bible. It shows in his motets and psalm settings, a selection of which appears on this CD.
The influence of ancient masters is present everywhere in these works. Mendelssohn shows an impressive command of polyphony, which is alternated by homophonic passages. The motet Mitten wir im Leben sind (op. 23,3) has an antiphonal structure; Mendelssohn uses sopranos and basses separately, like the 'high choir' and 'low choir' in the late renaissance. In Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen (op. 78,3), a setting of Psalm 22, some phrases are set for one solo voice, another ancient practice (cf. Schütz' Schwanengesang). Interesting is the relationship between text and music. Mendelssohn doesn't go as far as baroque masters like Schütz and Bach in allowing the text to dominate the music. That doesn't mean, though, that the text is not reflected in the music. There are some impressive examples in the setting of Psalm 2, Warum toben die Heiden (op. 78,1). In the 4th verse ("Aber der im Himmel wohnet, lachet ihrer, und der Herr spottet ihrer") the words lachet and spottet are vividly illustrated in the music. And the rhetorical device of repetition is used to great effect in "Du sollst sie mit eisernen Zepter zerschlagen" (Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron) on zerschlagen. The Missa breve contains three pieces from the Deutsche Liturgie, which are for double choir - again referring to times long gone. The first and last works on this CD, Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt (Psalm 100) and Herr, sei gnädig unserm Flehn are rather simple and straightforward, but impressive nevertheless. In particular in the last short piece Mendelssohn shows his considerable contrapuntal skills. The closing phrase ("Herr, erhör' uns" - Lord, hear us) is very moving.

The performance by the RIAS-Kammerchor can hardly be exceeded. The choral sound is brilliant, the articulation and diction impeccable. Those who know German can easily understand every word without reading the texts, which is quite an achievement of both performers and recording technicians. Most pieces have passages for solo voices which are all sung by members of the choir - very convincingly.

"He is a little too fond of the dead", Hector Berlioz said ironically about Mendelssohn. But he explained that "no one can prohibit me from delighting in and continuing to develop what the great masters have bequeathed me, because not everyone should be expected to start from the beginning again; but it should be a continuation of the best of one's abilities, not a dead repetition of what already exists." This recording is an ample demonstration of Mendelssohn's creative powers which allowed him to put his words into practice.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

Relevant links:

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Work catalogue

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