Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang)

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Carus
WORKS: Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang)
PERFORMER: Christiane Karg, Maria Bernius (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor); Stuttgart Chamber Choir; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
CATALOGUE NO: 83.213

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Mendelssohn completed his ‘symphony-cantata’ in 1840 as the finale to Leipzig’s three-day summer festivities, which marked the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable type. It may be heard as a pendant to his Reformation Symphony but, whereas that work remained ‘in progress’ and was never published in his lifetime, Mendelssohn’s revised version of the Lobgesang was printed by the end of 1840. This fact, allied with its festal nature (performers at the premiere numbered some 500), tells us that tentative performances are not acceptable.

Neither of these new recordings fall into that category. Indeed, both have many virtues, but also differences that reflect alternative attitudes to the Symphony’s underlying message. As both booklet notes point out, the composer’s own text, drawn largely from the Old Testament, interprets Gutenberg’s invention, and its application to a Bible that could be read by all literate German people, as a light shining in the darkness.

The most noticeable differences between the two orchestras are in their string sections: the Bremen sound is on the wiry side, with a minimum of vibrato, the Bergen one richer and warmer (a difference possibly emphasised on SACD). One could argue that the former is closer to what Mendelssohn would have known, against which there is a case for him embracing, in such a celebratory work, the more dramatic light/dark contrasts of the latter.

Andrew Litton is also more daring than Frieder Bernius in his occasional flouting of the composer’s instructions, notably in the lead-in to the recapitulation of the orchestral Allegro where he slows down despite the A tempo marking – for me, it’s a beautifully judged infraction, though some may disapprove. He also makes more of the magical moment where the watchman’s ‘Will the night soon pass?’ is answered by the soprano in the affirmative (one of Mendelssohn’s most inspired revisions), and in the chorale ‘Nun danket’ he gets the chorus to phrase, not symmetrically with the lines, but asymmetrically according to the punctuation. Gutenberg would surely have approved such attention to the text. Roger Nichols

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Choirs and soloists are excellent, the solo sopranos radiant, the tenors fluent: both Werner Güra for Bernius and Christoph Prégardien for Litton are known as Lieder singers and it shows. My own preference, just, is for Litton’s version, albeit reflecting my own Romantic tendencies. If his reading is on the operatic side, Bernius’s more sober rendering offers many rewards.