Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht; Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
WORKS: Die erste Walpurgisnacht; Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)
PERFORMER: Jean Rigby (contralto), Robert Tear (tenor), Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone), Richard Van Allan (bass)Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Francesco D’Avalos
Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) is both one of his most curious and most inspired works. Goethe’s poem, dealing with pagan ceremonies at which the druids terrorise and banish the Christians with the demons of their own imagination, may be understood on a symbolic level: new ideas chasing out the old. But it also shows Mendelssohn in an unaccustomed light, with the familiar religiose tones now standing for the heathen deity ‘Allvater’ and his followers.


Both these recordings do the work justice. The orchestral playing and singing, solo and ensemble, are excellent on each, leaving nothing to choose between the two. Where they differ is in the approach of the conductor: D’Avalos whips up a furious, truly demonic energy, while Harnoncourt is more faithful to Mendelssohn’s Classical inheritance, with sharper phrasing and a cleaner edge to the timbres (he uses modern strings and woodwind, but period brass and timpani).


D’Avalos’s Romantic tendency is heard also in his coupling, a Reformation Symphony with a ‘Dresden Amen’ that sounds positively Wagnerian (it was in fact borrowed for Parsifal ). Harnoncourt’s coupling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the same token, is brisk, though still evocative. Barry Millington