Felix Mendelssohn's (1809-1847)second symphony, the "Hymn of Praise", is the fourth in order of composition of his five symphonies. The work was first performed in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press. This symphony enjoyed great popularity during the 19th Century but, alas, has virtually disappeared from the repertoire. The performance on this budget-priced CD should go a long way towards introducing this work to the modern listener.
The "Lobgesang" is a choral symphony scored for Orchestra, chorus, two soprano soloists, and a tenor soloist. It is set to biblical texts and to texts from the hymnal. As a choral symphony, the work is highly indebted to Beethoven's Ninth. But the work both follows Beethoven's great choral symphony and attempts to turn the form in a new direction.
Mendelssohn's use of voices in the symphony differs from Beethoven's in the following ways. First, unlike Beethoven's symphony which celebrates the brotherhood of man under an essentially nonsectarian deity, Mendelssohn's symphony is an overtly Protestant work, with the final, climactic fugue offering "Praise, honour and laud be to God,/the Father and the Son/ and to his Holy Spirit/on the highest throne of heaven."
Second in Beethoven's symphony, voices are introduced only in the final movement to speak directly to the listener after, Beethoven believed, the instruments of the orchestra had said all they were capable of saying. In the "Lobgesang" the voices and orchestra function as an integrated unity with no suggestion that the vocal part follows upon the alleged inadequacies of purely instrumental music.
Third, and most importantly, Beethoven's Ninth is a work of doubt, struggle, and ultimate resolution in the words of Schiller's Ode and the singing of the chorus. There is no sense of struggle in the "Lobgesang". The work opens on a full-voiced, triumphant theme of praise to God and hope for mankind and never looks back. Thus, the symphony lacks the urgency and passion of the Beethoven Ninth. It remains in its own voice an outstanding work with much lovely writing for voice and orchestra.
The work opens with three orchestral movements, consisting of perhaps one-third of the entire symphony. It opens with a call in the trombones which is repeated several times during the course of the work, particularly in the finale. The "Lobgesang" may be one of the first examples of the use of the cyclic form in symphonic music. Following the lengthy introduction, there is a short, light scherzo and a lovely prayerful adagio, concluding the purely orchestral portion of the work.
The following ten sections of the work (actually a cantata) feature singing. The vocal portion begins with a triumphal chorus (featuring the initial trombone theme) followed by a soprano solo with chorus "Praise the Lord, O my soul". Soprano Majella Cullagh does an outstanding job with her solo on this disc.
The work continues with a tenor solo, followed by duet for two sopranos and chorus, "I waited for the Lord". There is a tenor solo in the minor on the phrase "watchman will the night soon pass" followed by a large, massed chorus and fugue. This is followed by a chorus on the hymn "Now thank we all our God" followed by a final fugue and the return of the opening trombone call.
The symphony receives a first-rate performance on this CD by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Reinhard Seifried with the RTE Phiharmonic Choir. Majella Cullagh, (who sings beautifully as I noted above) and Mary Nelson are the sopranos and Adrian Thompson sings tenor.
It is a joy to have this little-known work available in a worthy performance on a budget-priced CD. The writing for the chorus in this symphony is outstanding with many stirring fugal sections. I greatly enjoyed discovering this neglected work by a great composer.