MENDELSSOHN Symphony No 2 – Jan Willem de Vriend
Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, his penultimate symphony, was preceded by the Italian (No 4) and succeeded by the Scottish (No 3, which he worked on for over 10 years). So calling Lobegesang ‘No 2’ is misleading, and not only because of the inaccurate chronology. It’s an expansive, mature work filled with wonder and should be far better known. The slow, dignified opening serves as a prelude to the main Allegro and some sizzling instrumental dialogue. For the initial exposition strings, brass and timps set up a storm, before the woodwinds take over for the lyrical second subject, beautifully shaped under Jan Willem de Vriend’s attentive direction. A high spot, one of many in this performance, occurs at 4'37" where, over a bass pedal, brass and strings alternate for a reprise of the opening motif before the allegro theme returns and the development really gets into its stride. Brass, timps and selected string textures are comparatively coarse-grained, the aural equivalent of hessian, which helps dispel any hint of the ‘philharmonic’ stodginess that for years weighed this glorious music down with the wrong sort of tradition.
Joys abound: the balmy elegance of the Allegretto second movement, the whimsical simplicity of the Adagio religioso ‘song without words’ third movement and, perhaps best of all, how, beyond the close of the Adagio, Mendelssohn drives excitedly into the start of the huge, multi-movement chorale finale with the words ‘Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn!’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’). A very audible organ plays a prominent role throughout (sample ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen!’ – ‘The night is departing’ – on tr 14); and as for the choruses, the Consensus Vocalis sing their hearts out. Of the soloists, both sopranos are superb, especially the lead, Judith van Wanroij.
No rival version is better and few are as good. Aside from de Vriend, the digital field is led by Thomas Fey conducting the German Chamber Choir and the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, a performance that’s conceptually similar to de Vriend’s, and I would also recommend the Stuttgart Chamber Choir and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Frieder Bernius conducting, another extremely fine performance. Of the older, modern-instrument alternatives, the late Wolfgang Sawallisch’s two recordings remain viable recommendations, as does Kurt Masur in Leipzig. But for a fresh, immediate statement that compels one’s attention from start to finish, I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed by this new release, which is also beautifully recorded. German texts are provided, but no English translations.