Mendelssohn: St Paul

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Erato Libretto
WORKS: St Paul
PERFORMER: Rachel Yakar, Brigitte Balleys, Markus Schäfer, Thomas Hampson ; Gulbenkian Choir & Orchestra, Lisbon/Michel Corboz
CATALOGUE NO: 2292-45279-2 DDD
The Romantic oratorio can trace its roots back to Bach and Handel, and in this context Mendelssohn’s St Paul provides an intriguing bridge between these earlier works and later masterpieces such as Brahms’s German Requiem. In St Paul (composed 10 years before Elijah), the composer uses the Protestant chorale and neo-Baroque recitative, but with a flourish of Romantic imagination – particularly in the orchestration – that sets it far apart from its predecessors. Not only that, but Mendelssohn was ahead of his time, for by an enlightened stroke of genius he chose to represent both God and Jesus by female voices, which in this recording are set at a slight distance from the microphone to give a suitably ethereal effect.

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The soloists all sound well, especially Thomas Hampson – in Saul’s aria ‘Have mercy on me’ he is the very model of tender supplication. But it is the chorus which carries the burden of this oratorio, and for the most part it copes admirably. The writing varies in style from solemn chorales to dramatic representations of the angry mob, but it is all glossed with the effortless lyricism that was Mendelssohn’s trademark. There are some rough edges in some of the more delicate passages, for it is clear that the emphasis in this recording has been on simple euphony rather than dramatic fidelity. The orchestra is reinforced by an organ which occasionally sounds a bit ponderous, but the effect in the grander choruses is a splendidly mellifluous sweep of Romantic indulgence that would make a purist tremble. Christopher Lambton