Mendelssohn: St Paul

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Opus
WORKS: St Paul
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski (soprano), Mechthild Georg (mezzo-soprano), Rainer Trost (tenor), Peter Lika (bass) Chorus Musicus Köln, Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering
CATALOGUE NO: 111 OPS 30-135/136 DDD
For all the religious zeal of the mid-19th century, church music had become peripheral to the development of a Romantic musical culture whose concerns were human rather than divine and whose forms were symphonic, operatic and lyrical rather than liturgical. In trying to breathe new life into the oratorio, Mendelssohn was bucking the trend, despite the public interest in the form he had generated through his 1829 revival of Bach’s Matthew Passion. St Paul, his first oratorio, has never enjoyed the popularity of Elijah, partly because it lacks dramatic coherence but also, perhaps, because Mendelssohn was struggling to find an appropriate musical language: it is the reliance on the chorale that lays St Paul most open to charges of being a pastiche work. Christoph Spering’s pleasantly unpompous account uses period instruments (including the serpent) and is well served by an able group of unostentatious soloists. The relatively clean sounds go some way towards lifting the weight of a heavy-handed tradition and bring fresh focus to the work’s more effective episodes, such as the martyrdom of St Stephen (sung by the tenor Rainer Trost) and Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Spering’s sympathetic approach notwithstanding, St Paul remains a work to be admired rather than loved.

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William Humphreys-Jones