Symphony No.2 in B flat, Op.52 (Lobgesang)
Christiane Karg & Christina Landshamer (sopranos) and Michael Schade (tenor)
Bavarian Radio Choir
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded June 2012 at Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: May 2014
CD No: HARMONIA MUNDI
Duration: 62 minutes
In the booklet and on the back cover it is suggested that the first three movements of the work published as Symphony No.2 were intended to act as an overture to its vocal and choral finale. Mendelssohn’s reference to it as “Symphonie-Kantate” does not seem to justify this view and other commentators have confused the issue by pointing out that in 1838 and 1839 the composer’s correspondence indicated that he had nearly completed a Symphony. That work seems to have been lost and this leads to the suggestion that the first three movements of the missing work represent the first three of ‘Lobgesang’ (Hymn of Praise). This is not an unreasonable theory but elsewhere I have read that the first three movements of Symphony No.2 merely use themes taken from that two-year earlier composition (but if the Symphony is lost how could the writer know this?). All this encourages the further thought that there is still a Symphony to be discovered including an almost-complete finale – a situation equivalent to that concerning Bruckner’s Ninth.
Perhaps it is best to ignore all these speculative theories because this forthright performance launches into a very grand opening symphonic movement representing; the spacious acoustic suitably enhances the rich tone of this fine orchestra and the balance is excellent. This powerful 11-minute piece is much more than a prelude. The Allegretto un poco agitato that follows is best described as an elegant intermezzo. The scoring is interesting: in the opening section it is two each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons with strings but the following part, which is in effect a trio, sees the return of the instruments used in the first movement with the exception of trumpets and drums and this scoring stays for the restatement of the main section, although it is far from being a literal repeat. In other words the movement is equivalent to a gentle scherzo but is only an approximate representation of the traditional contours of such a piece. The third movement is marked Adagio religioso. This seems slightly threatening because nowadays there is a tendency to relate this term to Victorian sentimentality, but in fact this is a calm and melodious slow movement notable here for the excellent playing with woodwind solos floating out elegantly from the texture.
The huge finale, nearly 40 minutes in length, commences with reference to the fanfare opening of the Symphony. This theme is now given fugal treatment and the symphonic element continues because in this performance the various episodes flow firmly forward – the orchestration changes, individual voices have their different solos and the chorus continues the narrative from time to time but in this reading a rhythmic pulse underpins it all. All three soloists sing unaffectedly – there is no striving here and no over-use of vibrato. Even the recitatives are swept along within the context of a swiftly-moving sequence. The texts are based on words from the Old and New Testaments, including several Psalms; they are mostly very familiar examples. I once read, regarding Mendelssohn’s pleasure in being in Great Britain which he visited ten times, that it helps to appreciate him if you understand his “devout Anglicanism”. Well we know that his Jewish forebears converted to Christianity so the Lutheran Church that they first espoused seems close enough in Protestant philosophy to that of the Church of England. Certainly Mendelssohn is known for composing Anglican Hymns (the tenth section of the ‘Lobgesang’ movement is known as “Now Thank we all our God’). In its strong forward-moving nature, ‘Lobgesang’ foreshadows Die erste Walpurgisnacht so it seems that the composer’s religious views were by no means narrow because in that dramatic choral work the Druids and the Pagans come out rather better than the Christians.
A striking feature throughout this perceptive performance is the conductor’s admirable firmness in his control of rhythm. This is the first time I have encountered the conducting of Pablo Heras-Casado and I am greatly impressed. I look forward to more – especially if the high technical quality of the sound here is retained. Currently he has a small but varied discography, I found reference to recordings ranging from Boccherini and Schubert to Weill and Prokofiev.