Some Interesting, Virtually Unknown Mendelssohn
M. C. Passarella | Lawrenceville, GA | 11/29/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"All we ever hear nowadays from Mendelssohn's "Athalia"--and only as an orchestral "lollipop"--is that old warhorse "The War March of the Priests." With members of Das Neue Orchester playing on wonderfully raspy old trombones and an ophecleide, and with the timpani played stirringly using hard-headed sticks, this is not your father's "War March of the Priests"--it's your great-great-great-grandfather's, and all the better for it! But there is more to "Athalia" than just this ancient chestnut. There is a long opening chorus that would not be out of place in Mendelssohn's Elijah. And there is an overture that, while not in a class with the composer's finest, is still a well-turned piece, with dramatic minor-key passages leavened by a rhapsodic slow melody spun out over harp arpeggios--bardic music that undoubtedly represents the priests who stand up for Jehovah against evil, Baal-worshipping Queen Athalia of Racine's drama. Too, there are fine solo and ensemble numbers, including a dramatic scena that recalls Jezebel's music in Elijah.
There is a bit of narration to plow through; non-German speakers, you can skip these tracks if you wish, but some of them feature sensitively handled melodrama. In fact, "Athalia" is, all things considered, an important addition to the Mendelssohn choral music canon. It is finer, for example, than Mendelssohn's cypto-oratorio known as the Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang), which gets an occasional hearing in concert halls these days. "Athalia" is probably a cut or two below "Die Erste Walpurgisnacht," which it resembles in parts, since it doesn't have the dramatic flow of that work. But with a wealth of lovely music, "Athalia" certainly shouldn't be relegated to the outer darkness as it has been for more than a century now.
Christoph Spering and his musicians make a strong case for the piece. The brass playing is stunning, putting the strings in the shade a bit. I'm not sure if this is a fault of the acoustic or if it is what Spering wanted to hear, but it is something of a mistake overall. I believe Mendelssohn's string writing is worth hearing in more detail. On the other hand, the chorus is very much front and center and contributes mightily to the proceedings. As do the soloists, all of them fresh voiced and mercifully non-stentorian. The singing is really of a very high order throughout.
If you're a lover of Mendelssohn or of early Romantic choral music in general, this should prove a revelatory disc for you. And if you peruse the very detailed notes, you'll be even further enlightened on Mendelssohn and the tradition of incidental music in 19th-century Germany. Fascinating reading.