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On a Sunday evening, dreary and rainy, and with a winter storm warning in effect, a goodly crowd braved the threat to hear the Choral Society of Durham's spring concert at Baldwin Auditorium. The concert, under the guidance of Rodney Wynkoop, featured two works by Felix Mendelssohn, in honor of the anniversary of his birth two hundred years ago (February 3, 1809), and two works by Johannes Brahms. The four works trace a fascinating history of the development of Romanticism in this narrow scope.
Though not as flamboyant as his contemporaries Berlioz and Wagner or even Schumann, there is hardly a page of Mendelssohn's music, from his early chamber works and string symphonies through the end of his career, that does not exhibit the mark of a mature and confident style. The driving force in Mendelssohn's musical voice was J.S. Bach. Bach's music was known in his parents' home, and Felix was baptized in the Lutheran Church at the age of 7, perhaps not surprisingly, on the birth date of Bach. He was a dedicated and faithful practicing Lutheran the rest of his life. Among the treasures he left for us must be included credit for "resurrecting" the music of Bach, which had been forgotten or rejected as old fashioned by the early nineteenth century.
Mendelssohn wrote many choral works of great variety: psalm settings, both in Latin and German, a Te Deum, a lovely Ave Maria, amd anthems for English churches, in addition to his famous oratorios and the anthem, "Hear My Prayer." On this program we heard two rarely-performed works bringing some new insights into the contribution of this great composer. These insights were enhanced by renowned Mendelssohn scholar Professor Larry Todd's pre-concert lecture.
Psalm 115, Op. 31, "Non nobis Domine" ("Not unto us, O Lord"), was written in 1830 during Mendelssohn's tour of Europe, which occupied him from 1829 to 1831 and provided inspiration for the third ("Scottish") and fourth ("Italian") symphonies and the orchestral overture " The Hebrides" ("Fingal's Cave"). While in Italy, he had opportunity to study the manuscript score of Handel's setting of this same passage and used it as a framework for his own setting, also opting, as his predecessor did, for the Vulgate Latin text.
The work begins with an orchestral introduction, and the chorus enters with a powerful polyphonic development of the text, "Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory." The second movement begins with tenor (Wade N. Henderson) and soprano (Patricia Donnelly Philipps) solos, ultimately joining before the men of the choir lead in the rest of the chorus. The melody on the words "Benedixit domui Israil, benedixit domui Aaron" was repeated much like in a renaissance motet and was as beautifully sung as it was written. This movement especially bore the strong influence of Bach, including a brief reference to the "Passion Chorale" of the St. Matthew Passion. The third movement, an aria for baritone, was sung by Matt Fry. The closing movement, a chorale for unaccompanied chorus, was followed by a repeat of the opening chorus.
Psalm 114, Op. 51, "Da Israel aus Ägypten zog" ("When Israel went forth from Egypt"), was written in German some nine years after the Psalm 115 setting. The orchestral introduction and the choral entrance lay out a sumptuous polyphonic texture suggestive of Brahms' German Requiem, which would not be written until at least eighteen years later. In this piece, the brass (three trombones and two trumpets), along with the French horns, provided a more dramatic and emotional form of Romanticism. Especially effective was the pianissimo and marcato passage that describes the mountains skipping "like lambs." The polyphonic and fugal writing in this piece, though related to Bach, was like nothing I have encountered in Mendelssohn before. The fine orchestra and the always well disciplined and musically astute Choral Society of Durham were perfectly paired with this passionate music.
After a brief intermission, thoughtfully shortened so that the audience could get home safely before the worst of the weather arrived, we heard two of Johannes Brahms' loveliest choral works, both composed some time after A German Requiem. The last two movements of the Requiem were added in 1868, and over the next couple of years Brahms worked out structural and expressive questions in his setting of a poem by Hölderlin, "Schicksalslied" ("Song of Destiny"), Op. 54. The poem's tragic vision describes the bliss of the gods and the sufferings of mankind fading and falling "blindly from one hour to the next ... year after year down into the unknown" (in the English translation by Susan Dakin). An orchestral coda refers to the music of the first verse, providing some hint of relief to the poet's dark vision.
The program closed with another of Brahms' choral/orchestral motets composed about nine years later. "Nänie," Op. 82, is a setting of Schiller's poem lamenting the passing of beauty and even perfection. This, like the second Mendelssohn work on the program, thrust me forward, in the web that connects the arts and humanity, to Mann's Death in Venice and all the psychological implication of our fascination with beauty. This may seem to be going awry, but looking at Schiller's words and listening to Brahms' somber music, I could not escape a feeling of meeting myself and my own passion (need?) for music and what it does to me. This sums up what music of the late Romantic Era is all about: passion, emotion, inner experience, and personal reflection. This program was about as satisfying as it gets. It was a stunning performance, from all the artists on the stage, of music to be valued for its sumptuous sound and insightful beauty.