Mendelssohn’s Rare Motets Featured on New CD

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MENDELSSOHN: 2 Psalms, Op; 78: 1. Warum toben die Heiden. Kyrie Eleison. Ehre sei Gott in her Höhe. Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 66.1,2 Richte mich, Gott. Heilig ist der Gott Zebaoth. Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt. Cello Sonata Op. 58: II. Adagio2 / Flemish Radio Choir; Hervé Niquet, cond; 1Pekka Kuusisto, vln; 2Pieter Wispelwey, cel; 2Alasdair Beatson, pn / Evil Penguin Records Classic EPRC 0024

Here’s something really unusual: a collection of motets by Felix Mendelssohn, interspersed with the Piano Trio No. 2 and the Adagio from his cello sonata, featured on a label called Evil Penguin Records Classic!

Evil PenguinOrdinarily, I steer clear of religious choral music unless the composer’s last name is Bach or Beethoven, and even in the case of the former I don’t like most of J.S. Bach’s religious cantatas, but these works by Mendelssohn are really interesting. For one thing, they’re very lively; in fact, the first one almost has a rhythm, and certainly a harmonic bias, similar to Hassidic music. For another, they use a great deal of counterpoint, showing Mendelssohn’s love for Bach’s music (not surprising when you consider that he was the principal person responsible for the great Bach revival in his time). The liner notes also indicate that the reason the Piano Trio No. 2 is included here is that the last movement is based on the Lutheran chorale “Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir,” which was used by J.S. Bach in his Cantata 130. A slim connection, but a connection nonetheless. A little stronger is the “Adagio” from the Cello Sonata, Op. 58, which is based on the chord structure of “Es ist vollbracht” from Bach’s St. John Passion.

But of course, what really matters is the quality of the performances, and these are absolutely superb. I’m familiar with, and a fan of, Hervé Niquet, but oddly as a conductor of offbeat operas, Simon Catel’s Semiramis and Gustave Charpentier’s Didon on the Glossa label. Here, he leads a particularly animated Flemist chorus in vigorous and very non-contemplative readings of these brief motets by one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

I already had a good performance of the Piano Trio No. 2 by violinist Marie Bader-Kubizek, cellist Dorothea Schönwiese and pianist Hrvoje Jugović on Brilliant Classics 94490, yet although I felt that pianist Alasdair Beatson sounded just a shade underpowered at times this one is easily its equal. This is largely due to the driving energy of violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who seems to be running the show from the violin chair. This is more of a modern-non Romantic view of the work, with only brief moments of relaxation in the tempo, otherwise driving the music home with force and determination. If they seemed to be a bit lacking in sensitivity in the second movement, they at least do not wallow in pathos or bathos. The third movement skitters with remarkable fleetness, sounding a bit like the Scherzo in this composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, and the last, a lively sort of 6/8 jig, is perhaps the best example of how well this ad hoc trio played together for this session.

The motet Richte mich, Gott sounds perhaps less Bach-like than those previously sung, but it’s still a fine example of how good a composer Mendelssohn was. (Really, except for the drippy Alto Rhapsody and Elijah, I don’t think he wrote any bad music.) Heilig ist der Gott Zebaoth starts very high in the sopranos, singing a rhythmic rather than a melodic figure which feeds into the tenors’ line when they make their entrance. Interesting to hear how he used his choir almost like a string quartet, writing melodic-rhythmic figures that play off each other and not dreary tunes hoping to convey “spirituality.” By contrast, Jauchzet dem Herrn seemed to me the most religious of the lot. The CD, as I mentioned, closes out with the “Adagio” from the Cello Sonata, and here pianist Beatson is really quite eloquent, followed in mood and spirit by cellist Wispelwey. A really lovely performance and a nice conclusion to this interesting disc.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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