Mendelssohn: St Paul

COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Carus
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn
WORKS: St Paul
PERFORMER: Maria Cristina Kiehr (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Michael Volle (bass); Stuttgart Chamber Choir; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
CATALOGUE NO: 83.214 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Mendelssohn’s oratorio Paulus, better known in the UK under its translated title of St Paul, was a Victorian favourite that has lapsed into near oblivion. Perhaps the fact that Elijah (1846) was unveiled in Birmingham as opposed to Düsseldorf has helped maintain its local popularity, but it’s still surprising that its predecessor, composed ten years earlier, is such a rarity.

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Like everything Mendelssohn wrote, it shows his impeccable technical skills in all departments. It’s very much modelled on the oratorios of Handel and – slightly self-consciously – the Passions of Bach. The use of chorales at key points and the plentiful contrapuntal writing (early on two false witnesses give testimony in strict canon) point up such origins, and the fact that this performance is highly period-sensitive reinforces those connections. The dramatic side of the piece slides somewhat towards the close, but much of the score is strikingly beautiful and imaginative, even if the arias incline to sententiousness.

It could do with a little more urgent motivation than it receives here under conductor Frieder Bernius, and while Michael Volle’s bass fleshes out nicely the complexities of the persecutor of the early Christians who switches sides to become a great evangelist, Maria Cristina Kiehr’s soprano seems on the slender side. Somewhere in the middle, tenor Werner Güra is certainly articulate.

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Arguably a grander approach all round, as can be found on the Hickox set, does greater justice to this important and rewarding work. George Hall