Symphonies nos. 1 and 2 (Sawallisch); Die erste Walpurgisnacht; Symphony No. 2 (Dohnanyi)
Symphonies nos. 1 and 2. Soloists/New Philharmonia and Chorus/ Sawallisch. Philips
Die erste Walpurgisnacht; Symphony n. 2. Soloists/PO and Chorus/Dohnànyi. Decca
The young Mendelssohn sedulously set liturgical Latin. Then came an anti-clerical reaction. Finally he turned to Luther's Bible and became in every sense a reformed character. Here is that process on record. The First Symphony resembles the early church music in its reverent acceptance of external tradition; Sawallisch's account is aptly bland and blameless. Die erste Walpurgisnacht is a more enterprising choice. As with other first nights, we need to study the programme: Goethe's savage satire depicts noble pagans oppressed by a cruel and stupid Christian tyranny which denies them their elemental rites. The performance here, with Tom Krause as a memorably dignified Druid, is vernally fervent in its dual appeal to the ideals of political and religious freedom. But orthodoxy would hardly have taken kindly to so deliberate a slap on the cheek, and may even; have struck back, hard. Mendelssohn's later, devotional works often sound mortally wounded in their innermost feelings and convictions. Thus the texts he selected for his Second Symphony, the so-called “Song of Praise”, are all about healing lotions for the suffering soul, cooling streams for the hurt heart. His deity hears our complaints and comforts the patient, like a family doctor. The music blends the docile melodic sweetness of the first phase with the ecstatic rhythmic excitement of the second, and adds a new; seasoning of chromatic masochism. From the hands of Sawallisch the balm sometimes seems to flow rather too unctuously. Thus the horn prelude to “I waited for the Lord” is allowed to hang about with a solemn expression, giving an effect of holy rit. Here and elsewhere the Dohnànyi version sounds more alert and vital. The night-watchman is interrogated with genuine Angst; the dawn brings a real relief. So devoted a reading will afford much comfort and joy to all believing Mendelssohnians, and may well make converts among others.
The Musical Times, Apr. 1980 (p. 252) © the estate of eric sams