2009 witnessed the bicentennial of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, but it did not lead to the kind of comprehensive recording of everything that he composed observed with the anniversaries of Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Chopin. This is merely that Mendelssohn wrote a lot of music that belongs to its era and/or original purpose and such endeavors do not travel as well as his established masterworks such as Elijah, The Hebrides overture, the "Italian" Symphony, and other works in that class. His established masterwork in the realm of incidental music for drama is unquestionably Mendelssohn's music for Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, which dates from 1843 and therefore written a couple of years after he supplied music and choruses for an 1841 production of Sophocles' Antigone in a German version created by Ludwig Tieck and Mendelssohn himself, based on a translation by Johann Jakob Christian Donner. Surprisingly, Mendelssohn considered as his original plan something akin to what Carl Orff would do with the property in 1949, utilizing declaimed choruses and a very limited instrumentation. But he changed his mind and set forth the far more conventional Antigone heard on Carus-Verlag's Mendelssohn: Antigone, where Frieder Bernius leads the Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart and the men's voices of the Kammerchor Stuttgart. Although Carus-Verlag is publishing its own editions of Mendelssohn's choral music, this CD doesn't seem to tie into a printed Carus-Verlag edition and contains spoken links between scenes written by Hellmut Flashar especially for this recording to preserve a sense of continuity in the story.
The introduction is quite striking, a bold, minor-key effort that recalls some of the more serious moments in his symphonies. The choruses, however, are surprisingly weak and conservative in a lot of instances, though "Ihr Seligen deren Geshick mie kostet" contains some measure of compelling writing for the chorus, despite some passages of what now sounds like barbershop quartet harmony. Some other passages do stand out; there is a minor key section for unison chorus during "o Eros, Allsieger im Kampff" that is sort of like a less aggressive take on the Dervish chorus from Beethoven's Ruins of Athens. The quality of the recording, made by SWR, is pretty good; the speaking voices come from different directions and the orchestra is well miked, though sometimes the chorus sounds somewhat distant. The main issue with Antigone is that not all of Mendelssohn's incidental music is created equally; this one stands midway between that music of Mendelssohn, which tends to confirm his inherent genius, and the part of his output that's merely going through the motions. Moreover, one wonders why the Max Ackermann abstraction, painted in the 1950s, was used for the front cover; it appears to have no connection to the music.