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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2011

Jun Märkl has twice come to my attention in connection with his ongoing Naxos survey of orchestral works by Debussy. Both of those releases were with the French National Orchestra of Lyon, and in both cases, I was favorably impressed. Here he leads the MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, also known as the Leipzig MDR) Symphony Orchestra and Radio Chorus, joined by well-known soprano Ruth Ziesak and perhaps less well-known soprano Mojca Erdmann and tenor Christian Elsner.

Märkl’s approach is what I would call “businesslike efficient.” Without sounding rushed, his tempos are consistently faster than Abbado’s which, in my opinion, is a plus in that a good deal of Mendelssohn’s less than inspired music is not allowed to drag or sag. The fanfare-like bugling and celebratory flourishes of the first movement’s opening Maestoso snap to military attention, commanded by the orchestra’s well-heeled brass. The strings possess all the plush and plump needed for Mendelssohn’s richly textured writing, and the winds, perfectly in tune, blend warmly into the whole.

Those who know Mendelssohn’s various dramatic and theatrical vocal and choral styles from his oratorio Elijah, his cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht, and his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream will find yet another style in “Lobgesang,” one closer to that heard in his oratorio St. Paul, completed four years earlier in 1836. Bach and Handel are ever nearby. Mindful of the nature of the text, soloists and choristers nevertheless steer a clear course between religion and religiosity, not allowing sentimentality or pious affectation to creep into their voices.

For both performance and recording, this new one surely qualifies for a strong recommendation.

Classic FM, March 2011

The Music Described by Mendelssohn as a symphony-cantata, the Hymn of Praise pays homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, climaxing in an extended choral finale that embraces some of the composer’s most arresting writing.

The Performance Märkl blows away any Victorian cobwebs with a reading that keeps Mendelssohn’s precision scoring firmly on its toes. This approach reaches its zenith in the glorious chorus Die Nacht ist vergangen (‘The night is departed’), which pushes forward with an elatory zeal guaranteed to activate the goose flesh. He negotiates the tricky Allegretto second movement—halfway between a scherzo and song without words—with remarkable assuredness, and captures the ‘religioso’ spirit of the slow movement without the slightest hint of bogus piety.

Donald R Vroon
American Record Guide, March 2011

Some facts first. A few years back the German Radio orchestras were all renamed. Cologne became WDR—Western German Radio—and Leipzig became MDR—Middle-German Radio. So this is the German Radio Orchestra in Leipzig, the oldest of all the radio orchestras and perhaps the only one with a reputation as strong as the one in Cologne. And the chorus in Leipzig is the biggest in the whole German Radio system. It sounds wonderful here.

Jun Märkl was born in Munich and has conducted this orchestra since 2007. The recording was made in 2008 in a radio studio in Leipzig. Mendelssohn wrote the work in Leipzig, and it had its premiere there in 1840 in Bach’s St Thomas Church. This performance is thus from the source, so to speak. Bach’s ‘Nun Danket’ chorale turns up unaccompanied and then with a very beautiful orchestral halo around it. The texts and translations are here (German & English); you don’t have to go to a web site.

The sound here is bright and clear, with little room ambience. The choir dominates.

The soloists are superb. …the soprano here has a sweetness and a clarity that I really like—she doesn’t sound too “operatic”. The tenor is fine—again, very German and not “operatic”.

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, March 2011

Those listeners who like their Mendelssohn fleet-footed and light as air should be well satisfied with Märkl’s sparkling reading of this wonderful score.

Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, March 2011

Mendelssohn’s much-maligned choral symphony in a persuasive reading

No work of Mendelssohn has soared so high and sunk so low as this symphony-cantata composed for the Leipzig celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable type. What the early Victorians heard as noble and uplifting gradually came to seem by turns grandiloquent and complacent. Reflecting the general rise in Mendelssohn’s stock in recent years, the Hymn of Praise can now be enjoyed, in a lively and sympathetic performance, for its stirring choruses that unashamedly proclaim their debt to Handel, its distinctive vein of lyricism that mingles innocence and poignancy, and for the thrilling drama of the dialogue with the Watchman.

A prime challenge in this work is finding a balance between ceremonial dignity and that urgent forward momentum crucial to the composer. Jun Märkl’s very smart tempo for the opening brass motto, con moto with a vengeance, suggest that this is going to be a performance in the mould of those by Andrew Litton and Thomas Fey. The nimble, eager Allegro, shorn of any hint of pomposity, bears this out, though Märkl is more romantically flexible than his rivals in the lyrical second theme. I was, though, less convinced by the other two instrumental movements: the delightful Allegretto, somewhere between a Venetian gondola song and a Tchaikovsky waltz, has a wistful charm but at Märkl’s ultra-relaxed tempo misses Mendelssohn’s prescribed un poco agitato, while the Adagio religioso is treated with a dangerous, Brucknerian expansiveness that only just avoids sentimentality. Phrasing in longer spans at tempi close to the composer’s swiftish metronome marking, both Litton and Fey preserve an essential Mendelssohnian innocence here.

Märkl is also slower than Litton and Fey in several of the vocal numbers, though, with sensitive shading, the idyllic chorus “All thee that cried unto the Lord in distress” arguably gains from the more reflective tempo. Elsewhere he shrewdly judges the balance between dignity and urgency, while the choral singing (with a notably incisive tenor line) is aptly full-blooded without compromising clarity in Mendelssohn’s fugal textures. Of the soloists, Christian Elsner, his tone poised between the lyric and heroic, sings in fine, forthright style, if without quite the imaginative subtlety of Christoph Pregardien for Litton. Ruth Ziesak’s voice has touching plangency, though her slight shrillness in alt makes he response to the tenor’s fearful “ Will the night soon pass?” less ecstatically radiant than it can be (Fey’s Eleonore Marguerre is ideal here). Ziesak and Mojca Erdmann combine attractively in the famous, and oft-maligned, duet “I waited for the Lord”, which emerges with freshness and charm despite the leisurely tempo. While this would not be my first choice (Litton would get my vote, just, over Fey and the older recordings by Abbado on DG and Chailly on Philips), this new Leipzig performance, finely played and sung, and spaciously recorded, could win over many doubters to Mendelssohn’s splendid symphony-cum-cantata. At the Naxos price it’s true bargain.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, February 2011

We are used to encountering this conductor in Debussy (Naxos 8.570775, 8.570759, 8.570993, 8.572296 and 8.572297), Ravel (8.570992) and Messiaen (8.572174). However he does have some Mendelssohn in his young discography. He recorded Elias (Elijah) also with Ruth Ziesak and Leipzig MDR forces on Naxos 8.572228-29. This was received fairly well by John Sheppard and less so by Gavin Dixon.

This Lobgesang is fervent and fiery. The symphonies 3 and 4 have rather unfairly put numbers 1, 2 and 5 in the shade. In fact the first of Lobgesang’s thirteen—here separately tracked—movements pre-empts the spirited orchestral writing of the Scotch and the Italian. The second movement, not for the last time, has a distinct Schumann inflection. The Adagio religioso (III) is warm and almost Tchaikovskian in Märkl’s hands. These three initial movements are purely orchestral. The choir appear for the first time in IV and makes a stirring sound, showing the grand, glowing and gilded tradition from which Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch Mit Siebel Siegeln arose. Listen to their radiantly plush contribution at the start of the Chorale - Nun danket alle Gott (tr. 11). The singing of choir and soloists is smoothly toned and borne high on powerful lungs and artistically well-judged vocal craft. Ziesak is a potent dramatic soprano. Christian Elsner is a tenor partly founded on the Ian Partridge model yet with more intense sap. He has the heroic apparatus to square up to the demands of Johannes in the Schmidt oratorio mentioned earlier. The other two singers are never less than good.

The German texts and English translations are in the booklet, and may also be found at the Naxos website.

This is Mendelssohn in glorious vocal and orchestral form. Do not let the low price point fool you into assuming anything here is mediocre; quite the contrary. This is stirringly and fervently done; a superbly crafted performance in a satisfyingly engineered recording.

Roger Nichols
BBC Music Magazine, February 2011

Märkl’s version has many beauties, not least the duet before the final chorus which Ruth Ziesak and Christian Elsner sing with great tenderness

Brian Wilson - Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, February 2011

With so little competition in their price range for their existing recording of Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, it may seem surprising that Naxos have chosen to record it again. This new version has real virtues, not least in that it gets off to a rousing start and continues to keep up the pace, without sounding hard-driven. With very able support from a fine team of soloists, chorus and orchestra, and good recording and mp3 transfer*, Märkl continues the good work that he has been doing recently. Those who have not yet added this under-estimated work to their collection may do so with confidence.

In case you’re puzzled by the cover-shot, it shows Gutenberg at work: the symphony was composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his first printing press in 1840.

* A couple of small glitches in playing the first movement seem to have been the fault of Squeezebox—they weren’t there when I tried again.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, January 2011

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his Symphony No. 2 “Lobgesang” (“Song of Praise”) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press, and it was apparently quite a success at its première in 1840. Today, Mendelssohn’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, with their simpler structures and catchier tunes, tend to overshadow the Second by quite a ways, but there’s no denying the Second is big. After all, there wasn’t just the printing press to think about, there was that whole Gutenberg Bible thing to honor. So Mendelssohn wanted the music to be grand, nay, grandiose, and may have used no less than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as his model. Certainly, the present disc from Jun Märkl and company catches much of that momentous quality the composer was striving to realize.

Because this is Mendelssohn, after all, we still get an abundance of memorable melodies, beginning with the long opening Sinfonia, which Märkl takes at a commendably jubilant clip. This music gets the piece off to an encouraging start in the manner of a full-blown, curtain-raising overture. Mendelssohn described his Second Symphony as a “symphony-cantata,” that is, a choral oratorio with full orchestral accompaniment, so the opening movements are purely instrumental, followed by a series of sung texts based on the Luther Bible.

Throughout the work we get suggestions not only of Beethoven but of Bach. Nevertheless, we mostly hear pure Mendelssohn, who along with Schubert was one of the most tuneful composers who ever wrote. Märkl seems to take a special delight in the perky second movement Allegretto, and then offers up a most serene and spiritual Adagio religioso. When the choir enters in the fourth segment, they sound glorious, and the soloists sing radiantly in subsequent passages.

Mendelssohn accomplishes his goal of praising Gutenberg and God, and Märkl and his musicians accomplish their goal of making it all as thrilling, inspirational, and accessible as possible. The disc is an impressive achievement all the way around.

Releasing the disc in 2010, Naxos recorded the music in Leipzig, Germany, in 2008, producing a sound that is appropriately massive, the orchestra and chorus filling the room from end to end. More important, it’s largely good, clean, clear sound, with just enough ambient bloom to provide a realistic concert-hall feeling. Stage depth is fine, dynamics acceptable, and voices, while a tad thick, fairly natural. On the whole, the CD makes an enjoyable listening experience., January 2011

Looking backward, to a greater or lesser degree, and then reinterpreting the past, can play a large part in composers’ creations. Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata (as he himself styled it), the “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”), dates to 1840 and was consciously modeled on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed in 1824. But Mendelssohn reduced Beethoven’s very substantial first three movements to mere introductory material for the vocal sections; so, although the “Lobgesang” runs about 70 minutes—more or less as long as Beethoven’s Ninth—nearly 45 minutes of Mendelssohn’s work is vocal, compared with only 25 minutes of Beethoven’s. Nevertheless, there are fascinating parallels between the two pieces, not least because they use the trappings of religion to celebrate entirely secular matters: for Beethoven, joy; for Mendelssohn, the invention of the printing press, whose 400th anniversary was the occasion for the creation of the “Lobgesang.” Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 is by far his longest and least frequently performed, but Jun Märkl and the forces of Middle German Radio make so strong a case for it that one hopes the work will return to the popularity it enjoyed at its debut (although the need for chorus and three soloists admittedly makes it harder and more costly to perform than are Mendelssohn’s purely orchestral symphonies). Märkl does a fine job of highlighting the work’s careful structure, in which the opening and closing use nearly identical music (looking ahead to Bruckner), while the vocal passages expertly mix choral sections with soprano and tenor solos, soprano-tenor duets, and one duet for two sopranos. The text, taken from the Lutheran Bible, is somewhat repetitious and not of much interest in itself—it is all variations on praise to God—but Mendelssohn finds so many different ways to set similar words that the work’s interest never flags. The “Lobgesang” is a fascinating piece on many levels, looking at both music and technology in a rear-view mirror while containing some forward-looking elements and some very fine vocal writing. It is well worth greater familiarity than it has had in recent times.

James Manheim, January 2011

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 52, “Lobgesang,” composed for an event marking the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press, has had a wildly varied reception history. For much of the 19th century, this work by the Jewish-born composer seemed the very essence of German Lutheran piety. For criticism of the late 20th century it was a bombastic, somehow dishonest work; in Charles Rosen’s memorable phrase, it marked the invention of religious kitsch in music. Perhaps a more balanced view is possible if one listens to the sprawling symphony, really a cantata, without ideological filters in place. The work emerges as an effort on the part of the now-mature composer to step out of his comfort zone, and to come to grips with the example of then 13-year-old Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, all while feeding his own growing interest in Bach’s music. Seen this way, the work’s failures are as interesting as its successes: its garish contrasts result from an effort to unify a fragmenting musical world. This is a fine, straightforward performance by the forces of the MDR Orchestra and Choir (MDR is Mitteldeutsches Rundfunk, or Middle German Radio) and it may be that a modest orchestra and choir do better with this work than major outfits that load more meaning onto it than it can easily bear. The choir is one of those extraordinarily warm regional ensembles that attest to the high level of basic musicianship in Germany. Conductor Jun Märkl doesn’t front-load the work with heavy emphasis on the opening sinfonia; the music’s interest lies partly in the sequence of guises in which the chorus and soloists emerge, and he allows these to appear naturally. The soloists, especially veteran soprano Ruth Ziesak, are first-rate. Booklet notes, including the music’s texts (mostly psalms), are in German and English.

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