Shine On, Mendelssohn

I recently heard a charming quote from novelist Edith Wharton to the effect that there are two roles in life — either that of a candle or of a mirror. I’m a mirror. Even when I thought I was a candle — years ago as an actor — I was really a mirror, trying my best to reflect the light of the candle (in that case, Shakespeare).
Having long ago abandoned the histrionic arts, I took up the pen, and that has been almost all mirror, all the time. This is especially so when writing about music. The composers I write about are the candles; I am a mirror, however cloudy, trying to reflect the light to others so that they can see its source. In the case of music, the light is sound, ordered by the spirit. Ever since I was first struck by its beauty, I have been trying to get others to listen. That, I take it, is my job as a mirror.

One of the really bright candles was Felix Mendelssohn. In my last column, I reported on my pilgrimage to the Royal Albert Hall in London to hear his Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), in this the bicentenary year of Mendelssohn’s birth. I did not think that I would have occasion to say much more (I already wrote of my deep appreciation of Mendelssohn in Crisis), beyond reviewing the rich Chandos reissue (in its mid-price Classics label) of the Borodin Trio’s spacious, heartfelt performances of the two delectable Piano Trios (Chandos Classics 10535x).
However, a new 40-CD Brilliant Classics box, titled A Mendelssohn Portrait, has landed in time for the commemoration (Brilliant 93888).  This may seem a bit less thorough and ambitious than the Brilliant boxes for Haydn (150 CDs) and Bach (155 CDs), but it is still staggering in what it offers for, well, a song. It is incredibly inexpensive, available at many internet sites for less than $1.50 per CD and at the Berkshire Record Outlet for only $40. That is less than what it costs to fill the gas tank of my car.
Of course, one reason there are fewer CDs in the Mendelssohn box than in the Haydn or Bach sets is that Mendelssohn died at a much younger age. At 38, he was struck down by two strokes in quick succession. At first glance, it is hard to see what is missing from the Mendelssohn Portrait — a few overtures (Ruy Blas, Athalia, etc.); the teenage operas (still unrecorded by anyone I know of); the two Pieces for Clarinet and Basset Horn; the piano sonatas; the unfinished oratorio, Christus; some songs; and the marvelous Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Most everything else seems to be here.
As is its practice, Brilliant Classics combines products licensed from other Labels (BIS, Claves, Koch Schwann, Hanssler Classics, etc.) with its own original recordings. The four CDs of the magical 13 String Symphonies, written by Mendelssohn when he was practically a child (between ages 11 and 14), come from the BIS label. If purchased from that source, they would by themselves cost as much or more than the Brilliant box. What makes this particularly impressive is that the performances of these astonishing works by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, under Lev Markz, are considered by some to be the best available. Having now listened to them, I understand why. They combine verve and refinement in a most attractive way.
No one should be without these 13 preternatural gems, so you can aim for them and get almost everything else Mendelssohn wrote to boot. Included are all of his major orchestral works, including the five symphonies; the Violin Concerto in E minor; the early concertos; both mature piano concertos; the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the oratorios Paulus and Elijah; almost all of the chamber music; Songs Without Words; a selection of his lieder; and a massive amount of his choral works, cantatas, and motets, mostly on sacred subjects.
Of course, one cannot say that the entire lot represents in every case the best or one of the best recorded performances. However, after luxuriating in this set for two weeks, I have heard nothing that was inadequate, though there are a few simply ordinary performances, along with many that are very good to excellent. It should be noted that, except for the string symphonies, Brilliant employs a mélange of groups and artists and does not present integral sets of the symphonies, quartets, or other cycles. Thus, one will hear the Bartok Quartet, the English String Quartet, and the Sharon Quartet in the eight string quartets (including the Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81). Unless you seek consistency in interpretation, this should not be a problem, as all these groups are fine.  
I was surprised that Brilliant did not utilize the reputedly outstanding Wolfgang Sawallisch set of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies that it has previously released in a separate box. Here, we have two orchestras and four different conductors. I went first to the Second Symphony because of my recent experience in London and was delighted to find a bracing, dramatic performance by Edo de Waart and the Radio Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra Holland. This recording has deepened my affection and admiration for this somewhat ungainly work. In the First and Fourth, Frans Brüggen likewise sets an exciting pace with Radio Kamerokest. Arnold Ostman’s Third Symphony, with the same orchestra, goes at a blistering speed in a riveting performance that blows away any cobwebs that may have settled on the famous Scottish. Conductor Jos van Immerseel is fine in the Fifth, also taken at a good clip. In general, these versions display the energy and vigor of these works and generate a high level of excitement.
There is no room for detailed notes on the 40 CDs; so I will simply say that Mendelssohn was a great chamber music composer, and here are almost all his treasures in this genre in decent to very good performances. The two oratorios, Paulus and Elias, receive top-notch interpretations from Helmuth Rilling and his forces. They represent a real strength in this set. (Alas, only Paulus is provided with an English translation of the German libretto in the accompanying CD-ROM.)
I was long ago convinced by these two oratorios, along with the Second Symphony, that Mendelssohn was one of the greatest contrapuntalists who ever composed for chorus and orchestra — perhaps the greatest since Bach, by whom Mendelssohn was so profoundly influenced. One revelation of the Brilliant box is how much more evidence for this contrapuntal genius there is. I am still in the midst of exploring the choral and a capella treasures, which include Lauda Sion, Magnificat, Gloria, Hora Est, Te Deum, Ave Maria, and a gem of a short Mass, titled the Germany Liturgy. (The CD-ROM only provides the German and Latin texts without translation.) The exquisite performances are mainly by the Chamber Choir of Europe, under Nicol Matt. In all, these works give the lie to those who might suggest that Mendelssohn’s conversion to Christianity was a matter of convenience rather than of deep conviction.
The set also demonstrates Mendelssohn’s range. He is principally known for his quicksilver Midsummer Night’s Dream-style music. Mendelssohn combined tremendous joie de vivre with graciousness; there is never a hint of coarseness. His sense of refinement led him once to scold an English composition student for having written an “ungentlemanly modulation.” However, any idea of Mendelssohn as a Victorian prude is blown away by the deeper side displayed in many of these choral and chamber works. The String Quartet No. 6, written shortly after his beloved sister’s death, is one of the most searing utterances ever composed. Also, I keep hearing the distraught, entreating call from Lobgesang, “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” And then comes the thrilling moment of the answer from the soprano, then the full chorus — “De Nacht ist vergangen.” The night has departed!

Mendelssohn knew real darkness. He was a candle, the bright light of which dispelled the night. He may have been extinguished at an early age, but his light shines on. It is beyond my imagination why anyone would not wish to see this light. Take it from a mirror: Here is your chance.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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