What are the pleasures and challenges for the tenor soloist in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 – the ‘Hymn of Praise’?
Well, fundamentally, it’s not too challenging! The part is lyrical, absolutely beautifully written, and it’s not too high or too low. As far as I can see the greatest pleasure of singing it is being able to sit and listen to the whole piece. It’s blissful. I have a terrible sort of strange weakness for Mendelssohn and I’m rendered tearful in seconds.
At times this symphony has been much criticised – George Bernard Shaw described it as ‘dreadful and dreary’ – what do you think of the piece?
It’s a wonderful piece – quite outstanding. You listen to a bit of a piece like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Elijah or the wonderful F minor String Quartet, then this and it’s as good. People like George Bernard Shaw gave him a bad time and it’s taken an awful long time to get out of it. Radio 3’s Mendelssohn coverage has been quite illuminating. We can see the clarity of Mendelssohn’s genius again now – it’s like a spring from a well – bubbling, silvery and clean.
This is an unusual work – part symphony, part cantata. In many ways it's as much indebted to German sacred music as the symphony…
Bach and Handel are the great masters but Mendelssohn is equal, just different. Bach is a kind of Rubens with his heavy pietism; Mendelssohn is pure – in a funny kind of way he embodies a sort of zen belief. Typically of Mendelssohn’s religious music this symphony has a blend of his Christian beliefs and his deep Jewish roots. And of course he uses the chorale 'Nun danket alle Gott' and has the fiddles all running around like mad things – fantastic!
Is there something special for you about performing with a Welsh orchestra?
Of course, being a Welshman, it’s always nice to go back there. What has been fascinating is to see how in these 50 years since I left the standard has changed so completely. The instrumental playing is of a different quality, and I’d think the choral singing has improved 500 per cent.
What’s the highlight for you of this particular performance?
I’ve got two, if I may say. The wonderful ‘Ich harrete des Herrn’ (I waited on the Lord) duet for sopranos, then the great ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ (Now thank we all our God) movement. Those are the two unspeakably, infinitely great pieces in the symphony. The first is music of pure gratitude and patience. Then in the ‘Nun danket’ there’s an extraordinary out-flowing of joy and belief. Of course this recording is quite valedictory as well because Pamela – Mrs Hickox – is the mezzo soloist and the late Richard Hickox is conducting – it’s a goodbye letter in an odd sort of way.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Image: Askonas Holt
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