Mendelssohn: Oratorios / Bernius

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Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:

St. Paul
Specialising in spiritual choral music from all periods the Carus label continue their impressive series of Mendelssohn sacred choral works with the oratorio Paulus (St. Paul); their eleventh volume under the baton of Frieder Bernius.

The oratorios Paulus and Elijah are two mainstays of the genre that secured Mendelssohn’s fame in the restorationist Germany and Victorian Britain, where they were frequently performed at numerous music festivals and sometimes conducted by the composer. In spite of the forceful and enduring backlash against things Germanic and Victorian that prevailed in Britain following the outbreak of the Great War, Paulus and Elijah have remained perennially popular with the British provincial choral societies. On the other hand, owing mainly to changes in music fashion, Mendelssohn’s impressive output of psalm settings, motets, cantatas, Walpurgisnacht and the Lobgesang - works that figured so prominently in the European music life of the 1830s and 1840s - are either largely forgotten or rarely performed.

According to biographer Michael P. Steinberg, "Paulus was written in the aftermath of Abraham Mendelssohn’s death and as a tribute to his memory." Musicologist Edward Dannreuther opined that Paulus was written probably for festival concert performance purposes with a devotional spirit rather than purely for ecclesiastical reasons. Mendelssohn’s sacred choral music contains a special and unique appeal. At its very best it is convincing and expressive, bright and airy in tone with a gentle serenity and a rare beauty.

Mendelssohn composed the oratorio Paulus for solo voices, chorus and orchestra between 1834 and 1836. Assisted by Pastor Julius Schubring, he prepared the text from the Bible centring the oratorio on the book of St. Paul and focusing on the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

Paulus was a tremendous success at its première at the Lower Rhine festival in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1836 and gave the twenty-seven year old Mendelssohn his international breakthrough. In the eyes of musicologist Francis Toye, for Mendelssohn the triumph of Paulus, "eventually established him, in England in particular, as the legitimate successor to Handel." Many performances soon followed throughout Europe, Russian and also in the USA. Probably Mendelssohn’s most admired score in his lifetime, composer Robert Schumann remarked upon the, "indelible colour of instrumentation" and the, "masterful playing with all the forms of the art of composition" describing it as a, "jewel of the present." However Paulus has not achieved the same enduring level of greatness as that of his later oratorio Elijah; a more mature score that is performed more often with a far larger number of available recordings. Paulus is cast in two large sections. According to music writer David Ewen the first section is, "essentially dramatic" and the second section, "lyrical and contemplative".

Section one of Paulus contains numerous highlights and is the more successful of the two parts. I was struck by how much the robust and elaborate opening chorus Herr, der du bist der Gott (Lord, Thou alone art God) (track 2, CD1) reminded me of Handel’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest (HWV 258). The splendid declamation of the soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr in the aria Jerusalem, die du tötest die Propheten (Jerusalem! They that killest the Prophets) (track 7, CD1). The shock and abhorrence from Werner Güra in the tenor aria, Und sie steinigten ihn (And they stoned him) (track 9, CD1) is memorable. A true high spot is the sequence of soothing strains from the chorus in Siehe! Wir preisen selig, die erduldet haben (Happy and blest are they who have endured!) (track 11, CD1). Also notable is the remorse and sorrow from Michael Volle in the bass ‘rage’ aria Vertilge sie, Herr Zebaoth (Confound them all, Lord Sabbath) (track 12, CD1). Volle’s outburst of anger and loathing in Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte (O God, have mercy on me) (track 18, CD1) must also be mentioned. Here one cannot fail to be impressed by the excellent woodwind accompaniment. Another highlight is the bass aria Ich danke dir, Herr, mein Gott! (I praise thee, O Lord, my God!) where Saul’s prayer is answered by the mixed chorus.

Section two of Paulus is generally considered to be of reduced dramatic quality and consequently is of rather less interest than the opening part. I should just mention the reverential and moving duets for tenor and bass So sind wir nun Botschafter an Christi Statt (Now we are Ambassadors in the name of Christ) (track 3, CD2) and Denn also hat der Herr geboten (For so hath the Lord himself commanded) (track 9, CD2). Then there’s the dramatic and powerful, extended bass aria from Michael Volle in Ihr Männer, was macht ihr da? (O wherefore do ye these things) (track 14, CD2). Werner Güra in the tenor cavatina, Sei getreu bis in den Tod (Be thou faithful unto death) (track 18, CD2) is impressive. Here I was struck by the superb playing by the soloist in the obbligato cello part. The strength and intensity of the two mighty and compelling final choruses is noteworthy: Sehet, welch eine Liebe uns der Vater erzeiget (See what love hath the Father bestowed on us) (track 21, CD2) and Nicht aber ihm allein, sondern allen (Not only unto him) (track 23, CD2).

Argentinian soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr, who sings both the soprano and alto parts, rises to the tough assignment and proves impressive. Her captivating performance was appropriately reverential, blended with impressive clarity of enunciation and creamy timbre. Güra provides an enthusiastic contribution with his bright and medium weight tones, of a certain Italianate quality. These contrast splendidly with Volle’s memorably rich and characterful bass.

Bernius’s direction is impressive in every way. The playing of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is never overwhelming but always high on sensitivity; containing an especially moving directness of expression. The sound quality on this SACD, which I played on my standard players, is first class and especially well balanced. I enjoyed the exemplary essay in the booklet from musicologist R. Larry Todd, however, there are several errors in the accompanying liner notes.

With regard to alternative recordings of Paulus I have considerable affection for the 1995 Montreux version under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. The quartet of soloists: Melanie Diener (soprano); Annette Markert (mezzo); James Taylor (tenor) and Matthias Görne (baritone) are joined by the Collegium Vocale Gent; La Chapelle Royale and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées on Harmonia Mundi HMC901584.85.

Another alternative version of Paulus from my collection that I can recommend is the 1994 Dvo?ák Hall, Prague performance from the baton of conductor Helmuth Rilling. The talented quartet of soloists is Juliane Banse (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (alto); Michael Schade (tenor); Andreas Schmidt (bass) with the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Prager Kammerchor and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Brilliant Classics 99953 c/w Elijah, Op. 70.

It is hard to fault this Carus release of Mendelssohn’s Paulus which is a must for any collection of sacred music. I look forward to Frieder Bernius’s forthcoming recording of Elijah, Op. 70, also on Carus.

-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International

I have long sought a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah , that did not disappoint. Every one I’ve heard has left me feeling there was something wanting, either in the interpretation or the recording, or both. A star-studded cast including Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Gwyneth Jones, and Fischer-Dieskau on EMI is undermined by the turgid conducting of Raphael Frübeck de Burgos and flat-dimensional sound. Wolfgang Sawallisch does much better by the score, is provided with better sound by the Philips engineers, and has a mostly decent cast of singers; but I’ve never been able to abide Peter Schreier’s voice. Another ideal cast includes Bryn Terfel, John Mark Ainsley, and Renée Fleming on Decca, but it’s a period-instruments performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Richard Hickox attempted it for Chandos with a decent lineup of singers including Linda Finnie, Rosalind Plowright, and Willard White; but the sound is over-reverberant and creates a cavernous perspective. Philips went to bat for the work again with another fine cast that included Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Yvonne Kenny, in a performance led by Neville Marriner. Paradoxically, this may be the best and the worst of the Elijahs I’m familiar with; for it presents the oratorio in that high-tea English style that probably comes closest to capturing Mendelssohn’s Victorian valediction, while exposing those very aspects of the score that are most arch and artificial. Perhaps the best all-around recording with which I’m familiar is Telarc’s with Thomas Hampson, Barbara Bonney, Jerry Hadley, Florence Quivar, and Robert Shaw leading the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. It’s a sort of middle-of-the-road reading that avoids extremes, does the score no harm, and benefits Mendelssohn’s writing with exceptionally clear diction, clean recording, and ideal balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.

Evident from the above is that almost without exception the castings for all of these recordings could have been ideal if not for other militating factors. There are of course many recordings of the work—this being Mendelssohn’s most popular oratorio—but of those cited, one can’t help wondering why none of them fully satisfy. The fault may indeed be Mendelssohn’s. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a performance of the work with a community orchestra and chorus, and a decent ensemble of amateur vocal soloists. What became obvious during rehearsals was that between the many inspired arias and choruses lay many arid patches. Call me a Philistine if you like, but we ended up making some judicious cuts in the score; and even at that, there was restlessness in the audience during the performance as the malady lingered on.

Elijah was one of Mendelssohn’s last works, completed in 1846, a year before his death. But he began work on it as early as 1837 to an original text in German by Julius Schubring drawn from the Old Testament. The work remained unfinished until 1845, when Mendelssohn received a commission for a large oratorio to be performed at the 1846 Birmingham Festival. It was for that performance that the work was completed and the libretto translated into English. Current recordings are about equally divided between English and German performances, the new Bernius release falling into the latter category.

If you were an ancient Israelite living during the reign of King Ahab, c. 869 to 850 B.C., the worst transgression against Old Testament (Mosaic) law you could possibly commit, worse even than coveting your neighbor’s camel, was the cardinal sin of idolatry. The prohibition against worshipping stones, statues, and alien gods goes back to the very first of the Ten Commandments; and for centuries thereafter, during the dynasties of the Israelite kings and the biblical Prophets, throughout the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman eras, there have been ongoing battles for the minds, hearts, and souls of the Jewish people. In these great clashes of religion and culture, Jehovah, God of the Israelites, had to prevail, even if it meant letting the blood of His own people to instill fear and guilt and bring them back into the fold. Like many another biblical account of retribution against those who have gone astray, the story of Elijah—one of the earliest in the line of Hebrew prophets—has its villain. In this case, it’s King Ahab who married Jezebel and succumbed to the temptations of Baal worship. As Ahab’s queen, she turned the king away from Jehovah to the pagan god of fertility, Baal, and to the carnal abominations of ritual orgies and the horrific practice of immolating infants as sacrificial offerings. In a nutshell, the tale is told of a terrible drought afflicting the people. The Baal worshippers resort to their debauchery and other unnatural rites in a vain attempt to call forth rain. Following an afternoon of the naked gyrating and cutting themselves, Elijah has had enough. He challenges the priests of Baal to a contest against Jehovah. The God of Israel triumphs, the rain comes, the followers of Baal, along with their many Israelite apostates, are destroyed, and Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot. Highlights of Mendelssohn’s score include a number of memorable solo arias: “If with all your hearts,” “O rest in the Lord,” “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” Also several magnificent choruses: “Baal, answer us,” “He that shall endure to the end,” “Thanks be to God!” and perhaps the single most beautiful set piece in the whole oratorio, “He watching over Israel.”

The new Bernius recording can be immediately dismissed by anyone with an uncompromising bent towards hearing Elijah sung in English. For all others, this is a performance worthy of your attention. The vocal soloists may not be quite of the caliber as those in the above-named recordings, but as was already stated, not even the best soloists can make a convincing case for this oratorio without a conductor and recording engineers who perceive its weaknesses and compensate for them. In this, Bernius and the Carus recording largely succeed where others have failed.

Bernius sets a pace similar to that of Masur, which is to say on the brisk side; but unlike Masur he doesn’t sound rushed and the orchestra doesn’t sound harried. The chorus is brightly lit and to the fore, but not so forward as to overwhelm the soloists and orchestra, and with sufficient ambient air around them so as to provide ample dimensional perspective. The soloists, likewise, are captured with pinpoint clarity, but their voices seem to emerge from within the same plane as that of the chorus, instead of occupying a space separate and disconnected from the rest of the ensemble. The Classical Stuttgart Philharmonic is a modern-instruments band that draws players from a number of leading German orchestras.

Editorial integrity compels me to state that I was not able to audition this SACD release in its full surround-sound version. This is a strongly recommended addition to the Mendelssohn Elijah discography. It may be about the most nearly perfect performance of an imperfect and uneven work we are likely to get anytime soon again.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CV83021

  • UPC: 4009350830219

  • Label: Carus

  • Composer: Felix Mendelssohn

  • Conductor: Frieder Bernius

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen, Stuttgart Chamber Choir, Stuttgart Classical Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Christoph Prégardien, Cornelius Hauptmann, Johannes Happel, Letizia Scherrer, Michael Volle, Renée Morloc, Werner Güra