Aus tiefer Not: Chorale [1'16]
Aus tiefer Not: Fugue [3'52]
Und ob es währt [2'33]
Richte mich, Gott Op 78 No 2 [3'37]
Kyrie eleison Op posth. [1'25]
Nowhere is Mendelssohn’s creative psyche more poignantly exposed than in his choral works. His desire to create music rewarding for performers and listeners alike is everywhere apparent, as is his always mellifluous and gracious vocal writing. Most endearing of all are Mendelssohn’s worlds of dream-like contentment, which cocoon the listener in a web of enchanted idealism.
Hör mein Bitten (Hear my prayer) is the most popular of his small-scale choral works and was composed during Mendelssohn’s eighth visit to England in 1844, just before he began putting the finishing touches to his E minor Violin Concerto. The piece conjures up the feelings of peace and contentment in the flowing melodic lines of the inimitable ‘O for the wings of a dove’, which is also on this disc in its famous English adaptation.
All of these sacred works are radiantly performed by The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge under David Hill in the first of a new series of recordings on the Hyperion label. The treble soloist is the stunning Quintin Beer who recently featured in a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Allegri’s famous Miserere.
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Mendelssohn possessed a talent which was almost inexhaustible in terms of its promise and potential, yet he lacked the inner determination to develop his powers to their fullest extent. He was a sensitive man who was ultimately destroyed by his constant and caring attempts to counterbalance his extraordinary gifts with the need for a small number of intimate relationships away from the exhausting demands of being an idolized musical celebrity. As he once put it: ‘The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.’
Nowhere is Mendelssohn’s creative psyche more poignantly exposed than in his choral works. Here one regularly encounters his veneration of Bach intermingled with his inimitable ‘songs without words’ instrumental style—only here made explicit by the use of sung texts. His desire to create music rewarding for performers and listeners alike is everywhere apparent, as is his always mellifluous and gracious vocal writing. Most endearing of all are Mendelssohn’s worlds of dream-like contentment, which cocoon the listener in a web of enchanted idealism.
The Three Sacred Choruses, Op 23, were composed shortly after Mendelssohn’s arrival in Rome in November 1830 and directly in response to one of his first visits to the Vatican City. The twenty-one-year-old composer reported enthusiastically to his family that each morning he would play, sing and compose before setting off on sight-seeing trips around the Italian capital. Musically, however, he was decidedly underwhelmed, bemoaning the prevailing standards of orchestral playing as ‘worse than anyone can possibly imagine’. The singing he heard also apparently left a lot to be desired.
The first of the Three Sacred Choruses, Aus tiefer Not, is structured in five sections, four of which are unaccompanied and built on the main chorale theme. The central third—itself a paraphrase of the chorale—is accompanied and cast in Mendelssohn’s flowing, lyrical style, in stark contrast to the neo-Bachian music (most notably the fugal second movement) by which it is surrounded.
Although Mendelssohn was a devout Protestant all his life, his setting of the Latin Ave Maria can be numbered among his most radiantly beautiful creations. Cast in three parts, the devotional simplicity of the outer sections (which share the same basic musical material) contrasts tellingly with the floated contrapuntal textures of the ‘Sancta Maria’. The tenor solo’s opening phrase is recalled, incidentally, in the final coda of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Heinrich Dorn wrote enthusiastically in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik: ‘The music speaks so convincingly of Mary’s sanctity that it could lead a non-Catholic to her. This sacredly joyous A major ensemble resembles a golden platter upon which the master has laid down this pure hymn. Here we find the tenderest tonal colours of edification, worship and religious thought directed towards Heaven and reflected in the eye.’
The ‘archaic’ austerity and raw emotional power of Mitten wir im Leben sind sets it apart from Mendelssohn’s characteristic vocal idiom. This is derived directly from Samuel Scheidt and Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Mendelssohn considered the greatest of all composers and whose modern reputation he effectively secured with a historic performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. Mitten wir is divided into three verses, each concluded by a ‘Kyrie eleison’, and characterized by the textural contrasts achieved by setting plaintive chorales against energized, contrapuntal vivaces. Most memorable of all is the way Mendelssohn resolves the intensity of the opening pair of ‘Kyries’ with the floated closing phrases.
Known throughout the English-speaking world in its Mendelssohn-approved English version, Hör mein Bitten is the most popular of his small-scale choral works. It was composed during Mendelssohn’s eighth visit to England between May and July 1844, just before he began putting the finishing touches to his E minor Violin Concerto. In addition to the usual round of social engagements, Mendelssohn conducted six Philharmonic Society concerts, including celebrated performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Joseph Joachim and the fourth Piano Concerto by Mendelssohn himself. He described his time in England as ‘crazy, absolutely crazy’, and little wonder. He rarely got to bed until half past one in the morning, having spent each day in a feverish whirlwind of musical and social engagements, and later reckoned that he’d got through more music during his two months in London than he did the rest of the year put together.
Hör mein Bitten shows none of the sense of fatigue that afflicted Mendelssohn throughout his visit. On the contrary he seems to have taken the opportunity to conjure up the feelings of peace and contentment in the opening section that he so desperately sought in his personal life. As the choir joins the soprano (or treble) soloist, the music moves into 3/8 (E minor) and becomes considerably more agitated. After a brief and dramatic recitative, the contented final section resolves any tension in the flowing melodic lines of the inimitable ‘O for the wings, for the wings of a dove’, which also closes this disc in its famous English adaptation.
The Three Psalms, Op 78, the first two of which are included here, were composed during the same period, between 1843 and 1844. Mendelssohn was as hectically busy as ever, yet the whirlwind pace of his musical life finds no place in these movingly poised settings. Indeed, it defies belief that Mendelssohn’s treatment of Psalm 2, one of his most sublime creations, could have resulted from such an itinerary. Composed in a matter of days for the Christmas service of 1843, it followed hard upon a series of concerts at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, a pension fund concert at which he played Bach’s C major Triple Concerto with Ferdinand Hiller and Clara Schumann, premieres of music by Niels Gade and George Alexander Macfarren, mentoring the up-and-coming composer Carl Reinecke, a swift journey to Berlin to conduct the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a Haydn symphony, and Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 and ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, further concerts featuring concertos, symphonies and overtures by Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, accompanying a violin recital with Bernard Molique which included Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, among various other engagements. He also received a lucrative offer from William Sterndale Bennett to conduct all of London’s orchestral concerts that season, which he reluctantly had to turn down owing to lack of time.
Warum toben die Heiden (Psalm 2) divides into several musically differentiated sub-sections. After the imposing opening declaration (verses 1–5) with its characteristic dotted rhythms and highly affective antiphonal writing for the male voices of both choirs, a sense of spiritual calm is beautifully conveyed by the use of solo voices, until the gloriously full tutti at the words ‘Du bist mein Sohn’. The music moves into triple metre (3/2) at verse 9 for a tempestuous ‘Du sollst sie mit’, followed by a withdrawn, awe-inspired ‘So lasset euch nun weisen’. The passage which follows (‘Küsset den Sohn’) finds Mendelssohn’s inspiration running at white heat, culminating in a series of ecstatic harmonic suspensions of surpassing beauty. The brief final Gloria (‘Ehre sei dem Vater’) conceals within its apparent simplicity of utterance, a supremely crafted four-part canon.
The setting of Richte mich, Gott (Psalm 43) exchanges the double chorus of Warum toben for a single four-voice choir, and is noticeably simpler in outline. Following the stern contours of the D minor opening section, characterized by the male voices in unison alternating with the female choir in four-part harmony, the move to the relative major (F) at the words ‘Sende dein Licht’ soars away to uplifting effect. The following 3/8 andante reverts to the atmosphere and textures of the opening section before the final verses resolve former tensions in the warm glow of a D major chorale.
Zum Abendsegen (‘To the Evening Service’) is a moving, contrapuntal miniature in A minor, one of the most ‘ancient’ in feel of all Mendelssohn’s choral works, which possesses a poignant intensity arising out of his subtle (and supple) handling of contrapuntally overlapping textures. Mendelssohn’s mastery of temporal pacing ensures that although the work builds towards and relaxes away from a central climax in little more than two-and-a-half minutes, nothing feels remotely forced.
As is invariably the case with Mendelssohn’s final choral works, the Kyrie eleison of 1846 (the last and finest of four settings he composed) was written for the choir of the Domkirche in Berlin. The sense of inner peace and warmth of expression which characterizes this setting is remarkable from a man who was close to physical collapse. Throughout his life (with the notable exception of losing his beloved sister, Fanny, right at the end), Mendelssohn repeatedly demonstrated a transcendental ability to overcome worldly concerns and elevate his music to a more spiritual level of human experience.
The posthumously published Three Sacred Pieces were composed towards the end of 1846, concurrent with the Kyrie eleison. Mendelssohn was never physically the most robust of men, and the years of constant travelling, performing, composing and conducting were now taking their toll on his fragile frame—he was to pass away the following year, completely burnt out. His letters of the period are brimful of references to his state of exhaustion, and by the time he came to compose these short choral works, he had already pulled out of the Leipzig Gewandhaus winter concert season, leaving Gade to cover most of his conducting engagements. His work at the Conservatory was meanwhile taken on by his old friend, Ignaz Moscheles. These perfectly conceived miniatures are typical both in terms of their sheer mastery of choral writing and effortless command of musical expression and structure.
The relatively brief Heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth is an extrovert call to rejoice. The opening, in particular, is unforgettable in its exemplary harmonic control, the overlapping entries combing to produce a glorious suspension at the antepenultimate exhortation of ‘Heilig’. The dotted rhythms which dominate the remainder of the setting help to create a sense of uncontainable forward momentum towards the joyous final cadence.
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe is more intricate, making great use of the contrasts between unison, antiphonal and solo textures. Mendelssohn demands an unusually wide dynamic range here, and employs several pronounced changes of tempo to facilitate textual clarity.
Whereas much of the music on this disc dates from the end of Mendelssohn’s tragically short life, Verleih’ uns Frieden was composed, along with the Op 23 Sacred Choruses, during the period following the composer’s first flush of public success with such undisputed masterpieces as the String Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Between May 1830 and October 1831 Mendelssohn undertook a gruelling tour which included stops at Munich, Salzburg, Linz, Vienna, Pressburg, Graz, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Genoa, Milan and Geneva. By far the longest stay was in Rome, between 12 November 1830 and 10 April 1831, and it was there that he composed this prayer for peace, dated on the manuscript 10 February 1831.
This magical piece, originally scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, strings and organ, but heard here in its organ-only version, is a continuous, three-verse setting (the same text is heard three times) in four parts. The floated introduction, premonitory of the woodwind figurations which open the Schöne Melusine overture of 1833, leads directly into the quietly contemplative first verse set for basses alone. Only the last verse utilizes the full forces available, and does so with a generous warmth of expression that leaves one in no doubt that ultimate peace cannot be far away.
Julian Haylock © 2006