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Cat. No. CHAN 9882(2) Price: £0 No. of discs: 2
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CHAN 9882 - Mendelssohn: Paulus
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Available From: 12 February 2001
‘The chorus “Thou shalt not commit adultery” sounded excellent. The girls don’t understand what they’re singing about, and the married women don’t care’. Thus said Mendelssohn of a performance of Neukomm’s oratorio The Ten Commandments in September 1832. Paulus had been gestating for a couple of years and the composer was determined that in his oratorio the performers would both care and understand.

Mendelssohn’s father Abraham had urged his composer son to write an oratorio to get him away from what he saw as an obsession with sprites and goblins. Abraham died before the premiere but the responsibility the son felt towards his father expressed itself in what one can only call the ‘high moral tone’ of the work.

Paulus was first performed in Düsseldorf on 22 May 1836, with an orchestra of 172 and an amateur chorus of 364. The premiere was a complete success. Performances followed in sixty-one German cities, and over the next two years the work was heard in England, Holland, Sweden, Poland, Russia and the USA. This is all the more remarkable if we agree with the statement of one of Mendelssohn’s English biographers that throughout the work, ‘the aria is subordinated to the recitative, and the composer never swerves from his high purpose in order to conciliate popular taste’.

For Mendelssohn, born a Jew and brought up a Christian, the story of St Paul had an obvious relevance. In the saint’s words: ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature – old things are passed away.’ – 2 Corinthians 5:17. The oratorio was intended as the beginning of a new path that would lead not only to an understanding of its text but also to a new dignity and position for the oratorio form and for music in general. Leon Botstein has written that ‘…Few works were as influential on the dramatic sound and rhetorical scale of early Wagner as Paulus’. One more reason for Wagner to have disowned it and one more reason for us to lament with Mendelssohn that his father never heard a work which would, the old man trusted, ‘solve the problem of combining ancient conceptions with modern means’.

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