Mendelssohn Bicentennial: Crescendo presents rarely heard gems from frère et soeur
March 21, 2009, First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
It is perfectly fitting that on J. S. Bach’s birthday (March 21) a tribute should be paid to two composers who lived a century later: Felix Mendelssohn (his bicentenary year), and his gifted sister, composer Fanny Hensel. By the early nineteenth century, Bach, who was viewed as an antique keyboard pedagogue, was to await Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 for posthumous acclaim. Yet, both Felix (Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) and Fanny (Mendelssohn Hensel) wrote remarkable and beautiful choral works, assimilating an extraordinary palate of antiquarian musical idioms and styles. Their mastery of such Catholic and Lutheran idioms was largely owing to their common tutelage by Carl Friedrich Zelter, who imparted his love of Bach and Palestrina to this gifted musical pair.
The vocal ensemble Crescendo has become a formidable artistic force in the region, thanks both to the skills of the singers and their incisive and visionary director, Christine Gevert. On March 21 at Great Barrington’s First Congregational Church, joined by the esteemed soprano Julianne Baird and an excellent crew of local vocalists, Crescendo offered a generous sampling of Latin and German motets from the pens of both Mendelssohns. Also, to place the works in the social context of their lives and travels, excerpts from some sixteen letters were read between the musical numbers: a backdrop of narration illuminating the preciously close relationship between Fanny and Felix, meetings with Goethe, quarrels with their father, being covertly Jewish, secrets, amusements, and the frisson of discovering Italy’s musical life. Narrator Juliet Mattila carefully chose these letters, each of which placed the ensuing work in context.
The occlusion of Fannie’s creative genius behind that of her brother was suppression by design: her father merely adopted the sexual ethics of the period, relegating her to play and compose for private salons, out of the limelight beamed for Felix. This gender injustice was compensated for by Gevert’s inclusion of two of Fannie’s vocal works. One, a strophic lied, Die Nonne, written when she was fifteen, was utterly insouciant and lovely. Baird’s affecting interpretation undoubtedly imparted more than what the mere score offered. This was followed by a recently discovered motet, Zum Fest der heiligen Cäciliæ, a ravishing work that occasionally stuns, especially when bass-baritone Steven Dalin trumpeted “Audi et vide et inclina aurem tuam” – “Hear and see! And lend your ear.” It would be a treat if Crescendo offered a full evening of Fannie’s distinctive and evocative musical voice.
Most of the works heard in the concert were by Felix, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year. Choral pieces spanning from 1826 (Felix at seventeen), to his last year (1847), a stylistic mélange, amply demonstrate his cultural Epicureanism, his educated and refined ear, and a willingness to experiment with vocal textures, unusual harmonic changes, and striking solo interjections.
The first, Te Deum laudamus, was strictly contrapuntal, and was most reminiscent of Bach’s motets. The Ave Maria featured a stratospheric tenor part, beautifully sung by Ron M’Sadoques, with responses by groups of male and female voices. While reminding one of Schütz in its bold harmonic contrasts, the atavistic interplay of Baroque, Renaissance, and Romantic makes Mendelssohn’s voice unique. Another experiment, an a capella pastorale for men’s voices, Beati mortui, combined the traditional Christmas idiom with a prayer for “peace at the end.” The female-voiced Surrexit pastor bonus was ethereal, with a concluding Alleluia that was especially reminiscent of Bach’s Lobet dem Herrn. However, the concert’s first part ended with a specimen of Mendelssohn’s polychoral writing, Hora est. Using the Venetian technique, chori-spezzati, where small choruses are spread about the church, a remarkably dramatic work unfolded: a stentorian baritone solo proclaims “The time is nigh,” and voices awaken in the four corners of the church.
In the second half of the concert, the social insights offered by the letters were especially interesting. For example, Felix’s harsh reproach from his father, Abraham, for not using his “Christian” name, Bartholdy, was a glimpse of how wealthy and cultured Jews, who converted to Christianity, thoroughly abjured their ethnicity; indeed, Felix’s father regarded Felix’s use of “Mendelssohn” as a cursed moniker which would be a pariah to Felix’s career and position in society. After hearing this cautionary letter, the ensuing piece, Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? (“My god, why has thou forsaken me”), a plea for deliverance in exchange for a pledge of devotional fealty, provided the most dramatic moments of the concert.
Julianne Baird, of course, shined in the ensembles. However, all other soloists were up to the challenges of this often difficult music. Especially memorable were Jordan Rose Lee, Katherine Griswold, Douglas Schmolze, Steve Dahlin, and Ron M’Sadoques. Kevin Jones provided a sensitive piano accompaniment to Ms. Baird, and also served as organist for choral accompaniment.
The one blemish to the evening offerings was the tribute to J. S. Bach. The grandly plangent final chorus, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, was given short shrift with an allegretto reading that left all pathos in the dust. I doubt that Felix would have approved this tempo. However misjudged the pacing of the last piece, the evening best served Bach indirectly, through the infallible sensibilities of frère et soeur Mendelssohn.