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Berlioz and Mendelssohn

Berlioz Overture Benvenuto Cellini; La Mort de Cléopâtra
Mendelssohn Symphony No 2 Lobgesang


Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Sally Matthews (soprano), Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor),
Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Orchestra, Hallé/Mark Elder


Prom 19 Royal Albert Hall, London, 30th July 2009


Berlioz hated Mendelssohn. Consumed by envy, he spared no effort to denigrate the younger composer. When Mendelssohn invited Berlioz (who needed the work), Berlioz responded by giving Mendelssohn, a rough stick of wood in exchange for Mendelssohn’s elegant baton. He added an insulting note, suggesting that they might “down tomahawks” only in death.  Wagner gets the blame for destroying Mendelssohn’s reputation. But at least Wagner learned much, despite his jealousy. Hearing Berlioz and Mendelssohn together in this Proms illustrates the fundamental musical gap between them.


To this day, Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini divides opinion : the Overture, though is well regarded because it’s big and lush.  If this performance, by the Hallé under Mark Elder was somewhat undistinguished, it was excusable as it was a curtain raiser for other things. La Mort de Cléopâtra is a 19th century vision of ancient Egypt painted in overwrought purples and golds. This is Berlioz at his colourful best, gloriously over the top, every moment drawn out for theatrical impact.  Cleopatra is angry at being rejected “la fille des Ptolémées” vents her rage in swelling, sonorous lines. Piercing string chords raise the tension, hinting also of the sharp sting of the asp. As the poison seeps through Cleopatra’s veins, the vocal line darkens and slows to funereal place. “Osiris proscrit ma couronne”, intones Susan Graham


Graham was in her element. Her concert of French songs on 27th July showed her comic gifts. La Mort de Cléopâtra reflects the main part of her career. She’s a superb interpreter of the French operatic tradition. Excellent singing, vibrato properly and tastefully deployed. Berlioz’s Cléopâtra is histrionic in the High Romantic manner, but Graham makes her a believable character. “Cléopâtra en quittant la vie redeient digne de César”. The way Graham delivers it, the sentiment has strange, logical grace.


Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2, the Lobgesang, was written to commemorate the invention of print. Since Leipzig was centre of the book trade, Gutenberg was the city’s secular saint. Of even greater importance, though, print made knowledge accessible. No longer was learning – and power – the privilege of an elite. Print made the Bible available to all, spearheading the Reformation. It gave rise to the Age of Enlightenment and the values of reason, learning and liberty which shaped the modern age. Moses Mendelssohn epitomised the Enlightenment spirit : his achievements aren’t sufficiently appreciated.


This was the context from which Lobgesang arose. Shockingly, this was its first Proms appearance in 40 years. Perhaps when people understand Mendelssohn’s world, they may better understand the significance of his music.


Lobgesang is a hymn, not simply to God, but to the power of learning and enlightenment in the fullest meaning of the world. It’s powerfully inspiring. It’s Mendelssohn’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth, in many ways. It’s even a song symphony, linking Beethoven with Mahler.

The most amazing performance I ever heard was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. For the Leipzigers, Mendelssohn isn’t simply music but an act of faith. This was the city whose mayor stood up to the Nazis by refusing to remove Mendelssohn’s statue from outside the Gewandhaus.  This was also the city which stood up to the East German regime in 1988. Kurt Masur, conductor of the Gewandhaus at the time led the non violent demonstrations, which led eventually to the Wende. The spirit of Mendelssohn was reborn.


No Proms performance could possibly have the same emotive impact. But Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé gave a good account. By de-emphasizing the High Victorian values that have attached to the symphony, Elder reached towards the uncompromising concepts which inspired Mendelssohn in the first place. Despite the massed choirs and big orchestra, this wasn’t the kind of “comfort music” we often get in big public places.


The three parts of the first movement, the Sinfonia, evolve graciously.. Elder doesn’t let the theme of triumph (trumpets and trombones) become too obvious, even though it emerges near the beginning. Instead, he lets the airy Allegro mood prevail. Elegance in the string playing matters, for when the chorus enters, the symphony shifts up a gear “Lobt den Herren” they sing, “mit Saitenspiel”. This is what the first movement has been leading up, in its gentle way.


Elder brings from the Hallé a nice, classical sense of proportion. The balance between orchestra and choir was well judged. Sally Matthews’s voice was attractively bright in tone, projecting well above the massed voices of the choir. This was quite an achievement as the Hallé is very good, very full and rich. The flow from the dark of Die nacht is vergangen to the light of Nun Danket wir alle Gott was well judged. The latter is a classic Protestant hymn, even more effective in some ways as a spartan solo song. Mendelssohn absorbed Bach and Prussian Pietism on a deeply spiritual level. Steve Davislim gave a good, firm rendition of the demanding hymn, Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede.


This is a wonderfully visual symphony. It was televised for broadcast and repeat listening. Seeing the glitter of the brass, and the organ loft lit by light adds to the experience. It is dramatic, but its primary impact is spiritual.  For Mendelssohn, music was sublime, but it was also a channel for higher concepts, a means towards greater goals of human understanding.


Anne Ozorio