Although immensely popular during the reign of Queen Victoria – even to the extent of the Finale being performed on its own by amateur choral societies – Mendelssohn’s ‘Lobgesang’ has not been given great attention in recent years. There have however been some notable recordings – Sawallisch has made two and memorably, both Chailly and Masur have honoured the memory of their predecessor at the Leipzig Gewandhaus: Felix Mendelssohn who conducted that Orchestra at the premiere. Very recently Yannick Nézet-Séguin has recorded it but Edward Gardner’s 2014 version from Birmingham (the city where Mendelssohn conducted the first-performance in England) caught my attention. This brings us to the matter of the language in which the work may be sung. I believe, but do not have enough evidence to confirm, that English was favoured in the UK during the nineteenth-century. Of the two recent recordings, that with the CBSO and Gardner (Chandos) uses English and this with the LSO employs German.
Whereas Beethoven’s great Opus 125 was a four-movement Symphony in which the Finale is ‘Choral’, Mendelssohn’s ‘Lobgesang’ has three symphonic movements followed by an Oratorio and it is significant that the composer called it Symphonie-Kantate. John Eliot Gardiner’s approach shows a positive take on the instrumental movements and this is interesting when comparing him with Gardner because the latter treats these movements more as a prelude, also the CBSO lacks a little in impact in the last one.
The work opens with a stately trombone theme which is fully developed, and briefly introduces the Finale, with chorus and orchestra given the melody to create a triumphant conclusion. Going back to Masur the trombones first state it with measured nobility; Sir John Eliot however plays it lightly and rhythmically in an almost dance-like manner and he shapes firmly the lengthy first movement. In the central section the theme is used as an extensive fugue; not the most gripping part of the movement and a reminder of the old adage: “when in doubt, write a fugue.” Nevertheless, Gardiner welds it into the structure convincingly before, in the Allegretto agitato second-movement, taking a calm, by no means agitated, approach and the LSO plays with rich tone in the exquisite Adagio religioso that follows.
The Finale, which takes forty minutes, opens cheerfully with a joyful chorus from sopranos and contraltos soon to be joined by Lucy Crowe whose initial solo is elegant and unforced. When Jurgita Adamonytė unites with her through the high-lying contralto part, the partnership gives a suitably mellow effect. Later, the same clear approach is taken by Michael Spyres in his long aria; and tenor and soprano present their melodious duet with grace, the accompanying horn solo sounding comfortingly beautiful.
The advantage of this LSO recording is that the widely spread, powerful choir is accompanied by well-detailed orchestral sound. Mendelssohn’s subtlety of scoring is therefore evident however forceful the music. The mostly unaccompanied ‘Nun danket alles gott’ is sung with great expression (difficult for the mind not to apply the words of the familiar Anglican hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’).
This lucid, superbly sung account is now among my favourites of ‘Lobgesang’, even though I realise that more dramatic versions also have validity.