Mendelssohn & Bach: Magnificats in D Major

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A very interesting combination of Bach's Magnificat and a little-known setting by Mendelssohn - a disc well worth repeated listening.

The Magnificat belongs to the core liturgy of the Christian churches. In the ancient church of the West it became part of the Vespers. Martin Luther did not see any reason to get rid of it after his Reformation. This explains that the Magnificat was still part of the Vespers in Lutheran Germany in Bach's time. As even the use of Latin wasn't completely abandoned and was especially used on high feasts Bach wrote his Magnificat on the traditional Latin text rather than in the vernacular. Two versions of this Magnificat have been preserved. The first is in E flat (BWV 243a) and was composed to be sung on Christmas Day of 1723. To that end it contained four interpolations of Christmas hymns in German. The version most performed today, and also recorded here, is the result of a reworking which probably took place between 1732 and 1735. The interpolations were removed and the work was transposed to D major, apart from various other changes in texture and scoring. In this form it could also be performed in other periods of the church year.

This disc opens with a much later setting of the same text. It is an established fact that Mendelssohn was interested in and influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach; most people immediately think of his revival of the St Matthew Passion. But Mendelssohn also knew Bach's Magnificat, and it is interesting to note that he also was acquainted with the setting Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel composed in 1749 which he later used for his application for the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig after his father's death.

Mendelssohn composed his Magnificat in 1822 when he was a member of the Berlin Singakademie, directed by his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter was a great admirer not only of Bach senior but also of Carl Philipp Emanuel. And it is through him that Mendelssohn became acquainted with the string symphonies of Bach's son (today catalogued as Wq 182). On this disc we hear the first movement of Mendelssohn's own string symphony No. 12, which is reflecting the influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Mendelssohn's Magnificat is a work which combines the tradition as embodied by Johann Sebastian Bach, in particular in the use of counterpoint, and contemporary fashion, especially in the scoring. But if one hears this piece one is struck by the predominantly baroque character of its texture. For instance, the opening movement shows a very baroque agility in the vocal parts which is quite unusual for a composition of this time. It is a choral piece but contains some short solo passages. At the instigation of his teacher Mendelssohn has reworked the second section, Quia respexit, but in this recording we hear the original version. It is set for soprano, choir and orchestra, with obbligato parts for viola and bassoon. In the third section, Et misericordia, Mendelssohn made extensive use of counterpoint. ' Fecit potentiam' is set as a solo for bass, ' Deposuit potentes' is for a trio of soprano, mezzo and tenor and the work is concluded with the doxology, the second part of which, Sicut erat, is a fugue.

The Yale Schola Cantorum and the Yale Collegium Players give a very good performance of the piece. The solo parts are sung by the members of the Yale Voxtet, who are all members of the choir as well. This results in a strong stylistic unity in the performance. The solos are sung pretty well, although both the soprano Melanie Scafide Russell and the bass David Dong-Geun Kim are a shade too weak at the lower end of their tessitura. I am very pleased by the singing of the choir which produces a nice and transparent sound and expresses the text very well.

After the first movement of Mendelssohn's string symphony No. 12 we hear the well-known setting of the Magnificat by Bach. The opening chorus is performed in a very vivacious manner, with a beautiful sound and good dynamic accents. In ' Et exsultavit spiritus sanctus' the rhythmic pulse is given much attention. The soprano Cecilia Leitner gives a good performance, but technically it sounds a bit precarious. She realises the long melismatic passages, but only just. ' Quia respexit' is excellent, with beautiful singing of the soprano Melanie Scafide Russell and a very good solo by Aaron Hill on the oboe. ' Omnes generationes' shows the choir's great flexibility and again there are some good dynamic accents.
' Quia fecit mihi magna' is well sung by the bass Jason P. Steigerwalt, but it could have been a bit more powerful. ' Et misericordia tua' is a duet of alto and tenor, and Jay Carter and Michael Samsoni match well, although at the start Carter is a little too dominant. Samsoni could have done with a little less vibrato. The rallentando at the end of the vocal part seems a bit exaggerated. A little romantic outpouring, perhaps? In ' Fecit potentiam' we hear excellent textual expression from the choir. ' Deposuit potentes' is a bit too slow; the tenor Birger Radde sings well, but as a whole this aria is a little too bland. In ' Esurientes implevit bonis' Jay Carter gives a very good account of his part, the transverse flutes articulate in a truly speechlike manner and the realisation of the rhythmic pulse is outstanding. The closing chord should be played more forte, though, as it depicts the rich being kicked away. In ' Suscepit Israel' the two sopranos and the tutti blend nicely which makes it one of the best parts of this performance. The ' Sicut locutus' is a little too slow, but the closing ' Gloria patri' is given a splendid performance; it is just a shame a closing chord is held too long.

The disc ends with one of the last compositions by Mendelssohn on a Latin text. It is a setting of the text of the Ave Maria, and again we hear Mendelssohn's affection for the tradition, as he divides the eight voices - tutti and soli - into two choirs. The motet opens with a solo for tenor, beautifully sung here by Birger Radde. The second section is dominated by the choir. After the Amen we return to the first section, but it is no strict da capo as the texture is somewhat different. This motet is often performed with organ, but here we hear the original scoring of clarinets, bassoons and bass.

This disc is attractive for a number of reasons. First of all, Mendelssohn's Magnificat is hardly known and the original scoring of the Ave Maria is also pretty rare. Secondly, the combination of the settings of the Magnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach and Mendelssohn is interesting and shows the way Bach influenced the young Felix. Lastly, the performances make this disc a winner. I am not saying that this reading of Bach's Magnificat is the best available as there is some stiff competition from excellent ensembles. I have made several critical remarks about the performance, but that takes nothing away from my admiration for what the ensembles and their soloists have done here. They even use the correct German pronunciation of the Latin text, something more renowned performers don't care about.

In short, I am happy about this disc and shall return to it in the time to come. If you purchase it I am sure you will share my pleasure.

-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 27, 2009

  • Catalog Number: 8572161

  • UPC: 747313216178

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Felix Mendelssohn, Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Conductor: Robert Mealy

  • Performer: Birger Radde, Cecilia Leitner, David Dong-Geun Kim, Jane Carter, Jason P. Steigerwalt, M. Sansoni, Melanie Scafide Russell