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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars SO REFINED, 8 Jan. 2006
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Mendelssohn: Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, Cantata: O Haupt Voll Blut Und Wunden & Kyrie For Choir And Orchestra (Audio CD)
At least it wasn't Edward German. I think Ethel Smyth could probably have turned out a more orgiastic Walpurgisnacht than Mendelssohn manages to do. If you can imagine the theme of Walpurgisnacht handled in verse not by Goethe but by Thomas Gray, this might be the music for it. The worst of it all, for me, is this - there would have been another way for the composer to have gone about his setting. Goethe is concerned with the deep underlying issue of rational versus instinctive in the human psyche. He turns out, for sure, a certain amount of grand guignol about witches whose bodies are glowing in the flames, werewolves, horrid dragon women (according to the translation here - perfectly horrid I'm sure they were too), Lucifer, hellish vapours and the rest of it, but all in the service of his profound questioning. Mendelssohn was already in his 20's with a string of mature early masterpieces to his name, he was an educated and cultivated intellectual himself, and yet he sells himself short with a production like this. The fanciful inspiration that had served him so brilliantly in the Midsummer Night's Dream was not suited to horrid horrors, but he still chose to take the low road rather than try to rise to Goethe's level. One only has to think of how Schumann dealt with the theme of Manfred to hear the difference. For all its manifold shortcomings, Schumann's Manfred makes a serious attempt at taking on Byron, it provides a noble tone-poem as its overture, and the rest of the music (what there is of it) at least doesn't trifle with its theme. Yet here is Mendelssohn dealing not with Byron but with Goethe himself, and seemingly unaware of how inadequate his response is.
As well as this pastiche Walpurgisnacht this disc contains a short 'cantata' and a setting of the Kyrie, about both of which the liner note tells us nothing, not that there would have been much to tell. The cantata is no more than a hymn, to the kind of devotional verse that is usually called 'Victorian' when the text is in English, and which might as well have the same title when it's in German for all the difference there is in style. Poetry like this is a degenerate descendant of the pietistic verse that Bach set in his cantatas, with the individuality of that idiom wiped clean much as the individuality of human features is obliterated on a corpse. Like the Kyrie that follows, Mendelssohn's setting is all professionalism and no inspiration, the products both of a genius to whom things came a bit too easily.
No qualifications about the music would necessarily have prevented me from awarding 4 stars or even 5 to this disc if the performance and recording had been outstanding. The music undoubtedly burdens them with a severe initial handicap - it is not music that admits of much originality in its interpretation - but any music at all can be done superlatively well, be it good bad or indifferent. I feel that the recording has done the performers no favours here. It is rather dim and distant, at least by modern standards, and deprives the performances of any sense of freshness that might have redeemed them to some extent. This is the more unfair because I sense that the performers' work is really quite good. It is certainly perfectly competent, but so is the music, and that did not leave me greatly disposed to think of competence as a key ingredient. The liner-note, dealing with Walpurgisnacht only, is anonymous, but it is far from being the worst I can think of, and comes with French and German translations. Details of the recording (from 1990) are given on the back of the box in minuscule white print against a yellow background, but can be read under a strong light by someone with good eyesight or a magnifying-glass.
I would very much have liked to give the performers a more enthusiastic notice than this has been. I don't really think they performed wonders with the music, wonders being what it needs. However there is a half-hearted feel about the production altogether, and I feel that the artists deserved better than that.
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