Mendelssohn: St Paul

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: St Paul
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton (soprano), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Peter Coleman-Wright (bass); BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Wagner may have consigned Mendelssohn’s St Paul to the category of ‘sexless opera-embryos’, but it’s startling to discover how much he learned from it – try Paul’s recitative in the Temple of Jupiter (disc 2, track 14) if you’re not convinced. Bruckner, too, clearly remembered the combination of chorale and muscular fugal writing from Mendelssohn’s Overture when he wrote his own Fifth Symphony. Interesting that these should be the names which come to mind listening to Richard Hickox’s recording. It’s not that the performers obscure the Bachian and Handelian influences (that would be difficult), more that Hickox’s approach to sound-colouring and dramatic pacing make this work sound very 19th century – Mendelssohn as initiator rather than mere imitator. That impression comes across more strikingly here than in Helmuth Rilling’s Hänssler version. Rilling has a fine choir, and a marginally finer team of soloists – especially tenor Michael Schade and baritone Andreas Schmidt. But this new recording has plenty of its own to offer: a very persuasive narrator in tenor Barry Banks, and from the chorus and orchestra moments of surprisingly seductive beauty. This is a more worldly, genuinely operatic Mendelssohn, not at all a pallid sermoniser – a fact clearly appreciated by the recording team. True there is one fundamental problem with St Paul: the biggest events – the stoning of Stephen and Paul’s conversion – appear in Part 1, which leaves Part 2 with far less dramatic interest. But the music goes on being more than interesting, full of things to lure the listener back. Stephen Johnson