Mendelssohn: Psalms, Op. 78; Motets, Op. 69; Missa breve

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Psalms, Op. 78; Motets, Op. 69; Missa breve
PERFORMER: RIAS Chamber Choir/Marcus Creed
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901704
Though Mendelssohn’s stock stands higher than it has for over a century, his liturgical works are still routinely patronised as mawkish or bombastic. In fact, what strikes you about these unaccompanied motets and psalms is their restraint, even austerity. One of the most moving works here, the setting of Psalm 2, was described by the composer’s sister Fanny as ‘very Gregorian and Sistine’; and without being consciously archaic, much of the work has an ascetic dignity that recalls the Italian Renaissance masters, above all in the beautiful canonic Gloria. The grave motet Mitten wir (In the midst of life), with its interwoven cantus firmus, also suggests the spirit of Palestrina refracted through a 19th-century prism. Elsewhere the legacy of JS Bach, which Mendelssohn absorbed more profoundly than any composer of his generation, coexists with the composer’s own brand of pre-Raphaelite lyrical sweetness. Yet so sure was Mendelssohn’s sense of style, and so fastidious his craftsmanship, that there is never any suggestion of incongruity.

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There have been fine recordings of many of these pieces before, but none, surely, finer than this. In blend, chording and intonation the Berlin choir has few rivals. And under its director Marcus Creed it sings each work with an ideal blend of directness and refinement, and a proper concern for the sound and meaning of the text. Abetted by the gorgeous acoustic of Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Kirche, the psalms for double choir have a thrilling richness and depth, yet with no sacrifice of polyphonic clarity. A word, too, for the soloists, whose ethereal singing in the Magnificat (Op. 69/3) is one of the most memorable moments on this inspiring disc. Richard Wigmore