Recording of the Week Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2
Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony (known as Lobgesang, or Hymn of Praise), was described by him as a “symphony-cantata”; in a similar manner to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it consists of three purely instrumental movements followed by an extended closing section featuring choir and soloists. It is a piece that often seems to sit in the shadow of that masterpiece of Old Testament storytelling, Elijah.
This week I had the chance to listen to a new recording that should by rights redress this balance – Pablo Heras-Casado leads the choir and orchestra of Bavarian Radio, together with a team of flawless soloists, in a thrilling performance that sheds new light on a work I thought I knew.
The opening motif is a tricky one to handle; so simple in its own right, yet the linchpin of the entire work. Here it is subtly phrased rather than declaimed dramatically; Heras-Casado is evidently keeping his powder dry, treating this initial statement as the seed from which the rest of the performance grows.
The subsequent Allegro sets a cracking pace, with the dotted rhythms tucked in crisply, but there’s somehow still room for the internal details to come out of the texture in a way I’ve never heard before. This attention to these details (which so could easily be drowned in the richness of the choir and brass) turns out to be a running theme throughout this performance, and something that sets it apart from any others I’ve heard.
This is not a conspicuously “period” performance– the instruments are modern – but it’s nevertheless a taut, lean one. Any fears that this might be a self-indulgent wallow of the kind that have historically given Mendelssohn’s choral works an undeserved reputation as bloated Victoriana are quickly dispelled.
For me the first entry of the chorus after the extended symphonic prelude makes or breaks this piece. Often, the long wait before a bold forte entrance causes choirs to come in too enthusiastically. Here everything is underpinned wonderfully by the organ’s sonorous pedal register, which lends gravitas without being overpowering. This is a particularly nice touch, and indeed the organ forms a welcome solid base to many other passages throughout the work. Over all this, once again the details shine through – the rhythmic motif in the strings is clearly audible, helping to maintain a sense of drive to this initial entry.
Following soprano Christiane Karg’s suitably seraphic response to the anguished pleading of the tenor (Michael Schade) in the extremely angular “Stricke des Todes” (The snares of death), the shadows are decisively banished with “Die Nacht is vergangen” (The night is past); here again, as at the chorus’s first entry, a dancing string motif that sits atop the texture is brought to the fore, helping to lighten an otherwise ponderously self-important passage.
Heras-Casado does allow himself one moment of slight self-indulgence – in the unaccompanied first verse of the chorale “Nun danket alle Gott” one can sense that he is letting the choir enjoy their moment in the spotlight. This sensitive and expressive episode sets the stage very well for the majestic second verse, but it’s the beginning of the next number that really caught my attention. The use of the low strings (violas, divisi cellos and basses) to accompany the tenor is a stroke of genius in terms of orchestration, and the Bavarians’ sound is as rich and dark as one could wish for.
The bottom line? Simply put, this is a recording that made me remember why I love this piece. Mendelssohn’s Bach-inspired grasp of polyphony shines through with total clarity, and a work that can sometimes seem unwieldy here has an inexorable logic driving it from start to finish.
Christiane Karg, Christina Landshamer (sopranos) & Michael Schade (tenor), Chorus & Orchestra of Bavarian Radio, Pablo Heras-Casado
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