Frieder Bernius’ Great Mendelssohn CD

Mendelssohn_Walpurgisnacht_cov.indd

AwardMENDELSSOHN: Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Oedipus in Kolonis (excerpts)* / Renée Morlot, alto; David Fischer, ten; Stephan Genz, bar; David Jerusalem, bs; Kammerchor Stuttgart; Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Berlin; *Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart; Frieder Bernius, cond / Carus 83.503

Mendelssohn’s secular cantata, The First Walpurgis Night, has received roughly 10 recordings over the years, ranging from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Peter Maag to Christoph von Dohnányi, Kurt Masur, Douglas Boyd, Claus Peter Flor and Michel Corboz. I’ve owned the Corboz recording (Erato) since it first came out back in 1990 and was always rather pleased with it, particularly the firm, beautiful voices of the principal singers.

On this new release we get firm singing from alto Renée Morlot and tenor David Fischer, but baritone Stephan Genz and bass David Jerusalem have uneven flutters in their voices despite having very pleasing timbres. In Genz’ case it is particularly odd because his wobble occurs in the middle and lower parts of his voice; his high notes are as solid as a rock. Go figure.

Yet I am willing to accept this because of one thing: Bernius conducts with a thrust and drive I haven’t heard in Mendelssohn’s music since the days of Toscanini, and this drive is exactly what Die Erste Walpurgisnacht needs to make its best impression. Yes, this is Mendelssohn, and Mendelssohn was surely the 19th century’s Mozart, but as I’ve said many times, his music often had more bite and backbone than Mozart’s which, for me, made it somewhat superior. And in this work, as in his Antigone and the accompanying piece on this CD, Oedipus in Kolonis, he was reaching towards a new and edgier dramatic expression. Yes, the first chorus in Walpurgisnacht, set you a bouncy 4/4 with the winds playing chipper eighth notes behind the chorus, bears a slight resemblance to his Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, but it quickly moves into more demonic realms which require a darker and more dramatic touch.

Within this context, Morlot is far more dramatic in her solo than Brigitte Balleys was on the Corboz recording, singing of how the demons coerce us towards certain death. Although this is a setting of Goethe’s first Walpurgis Night text, and not the one later used by Gounod for Faust, Mendelssohn did not entirely respect the poet’s thinking. Carried away by his “penchant for witches,” Mendelssohn wasn’t very interested in the deeper thoughts of the original text, which dealt with the conflict between the instinctive force of Nature and the rational clarity of the world of the Enlightenment.

Even with their occasional infirmity of voice, I was much more impressed by the singing of Genz and Jerusalem than of Gilles Cachemille on Erato because of their greater interpretation of the text, behind which Bernius creates an ominous orchestral swirl representing the inexorable forward momentum of the demons and witches. In his hands, the music rises to several dramatic climaxes, all of them impressive, rather than toodling along smoothly as in the Corboz recording. Until a new recording comes along with conducting this exciting and a better baritone/bass, this is now my preferred recording of this work.

Oedipus in Kolonis is a strictly choral-orchestral work with no soloists. Here, Mendelssohn worked with poet and novelist Ludwig Tieck, but the composer was an avid student of Greek drama and retouched the text to make it more faithful to the original. As R. Larry Todd puts it in the liner notes, “Sophocles’ choruses were conceived for a male chorus of sixteen, divided into two groups of eight. Oedipus’ defilement is symbolized by the interval of the tritone. This dissonant agent remains in force throughout the score, and reveals itself as a melodic gesture and harmonic component.”  Only three pieces are presented here, however, Nos. 3, 5 & 6.

An excellent album, recommended with the caveats given above.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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