Wagner and Mendelssohn paired on symphony program

By R.M. Campbell

Nearing the end of its current season, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is pairing the famous with the obscure for three concerts at Benaroya Hall starting Thursday night.

Both composers are in the pantheon of Western icons — Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn — but the works offered are less obvious. Wagner’s “Parsifal” rings through Western civilization. For some it carries too much weight, but, in fact, it is a profound piece of art. The opera opened McCaw Hall, in 2003, a new production by Seattle Opera, which completed the company’s survey the composer’s canon of 10 operas. Thursday night was not the same as viewing, and hearing the entire opera, but the performance had the merit of simply being with this music another time. Gerard Schwarz, SSO music director, chose three excerpts: the preludes to Act I and III and the “Good Friday Spell.” To the good particularly were the warm string sound and long, seamless phrases. On the not-so-good side were inexact attacks and sloppy phrases. Not enough rehearsal perhaps?

Mendelssohn’s “Lobgesang” is on the other side of the aisle of popularity. Performances are rare: most people probably have never heard it. There are reasons for that. It is a remarkably uninteresting piece of music in spite of expansive choral writing and effective vocal writing for the three soloists, all of whom were excellent at Benaroya: sopranos Christine Goerke and Holli Harrison and tenor Vinson Cole. The Seattle Symphony Chorale was in generally good shape, sound well-assembled, balance keen. The orchestra played well. The only difficulty was the piece itself. For a man of such felicity, “Lobesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) caught Mendelssohn on his day off. It is always good to hear music that is not performed with any regularity, but the reasons for that are often because it is simply not very good. Such is this piece.

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2 thoughts on “Wagner and Mendelssohn paired on symphony program

  1. It would seem from your review that only the Lobgesang was performed. Of course it is only the choral finale of Mendelssohn’s Syumphony no. 2. Since there is thematic material brought back from earlier movements, the choral section holds together better when one has heard the material in its earlier iterations.

    Pairing Mendelssohn with Wagner made me smile. Wagner, who had worked with Mendelssohn and thus knew him, managed to absorb (or steal?) some of the theatrical ideas for Lohengrin from Elijah: in particular, the massed chorus as a character, solo protagonist, and fanfare-like orchestral statements in Wagner are clearly drawn from the Baal-scene of Mendelssohn’s oratorio.

    Wagner certainly took from others what he admired, as do we all.

    Nice tight review.

    {I’m the retired reviewer for the (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger and the Classical New Jersey Society Journal, and now the Director of Adult Education for the Bay-Atlantic Symphony in New Jersey)

  2. It is hard to know where to begin, commenting on Mr. Campbell’s review of Mendelssohn’s “Lobegesang”. First off, performances are not that rare, I myself, have performed it three times with Maestro Schwarz; two of them in Seattle, and one at “Mostly Mozart” with Debora Voigt. True it is not as well known or performed as Beethoven’s “Ninth”, or Handel’s “Messiah”; but aside from those two works, coupled with the less performed Requiems of Mozart and Verdi and perhaps Brahms, what are the “well known”” choral works.

    Mr. Campbell writes,” It is a remarkably uninteresting piece of music in spite of expansive choral writing and effective vocal writing for the three soloist…” Lets all take a deep breath, and think about that statement for a moment.

    It is true that musical tastes may differ. But for anyone to categorically state that “it (Lobgesang”) is simply not very good”, not only seems to show a degree of ignorance but when uttered by someone who calls himself a ”critic” is alarming.

    I don’t want to devote any more time to this, except to list a few of the Conductors and orchestras that have given their energies to recording this, “remarkably uninteresting piece”.
    Hebert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic
    Claudio Abbado / London Symphony
    Riccardo Chailly / Gewanhausorchester
    Peter Maag / Madrid Symphony
    Kurt Masur /Gewandhausorchester
    Vladimir Ashkenazy /Berlin Radio Orchestra
    Helmuth Rilling / Stuttgart Bach Collegium

    Mr. Campbell it may not be as great a work as, you think, “Amelia” is, but dismissing it as “simply not very good” makes your musical criticism suspect.

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