Bach Choir recovers its earlier renown with fine concert of Mendelssohn and Brahms

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Rowley, accompanied by pianists Douglas Mews and Diedre Irons

Mendelssohn: Six songs to sing in the open air (Sechs Lieder im Freien zu singer), Op 41 and Six duets for voice and piano, Op 63 (with Rebekah Giesbers – mezzo soprano and Ailsa Lipscombe – soprano)
Brahms: Die Mainacht, No 2 from Op 43; Feldeinsamkeit, No 2 from Op 86; Botschaft, No 1 from Op 47 (with Rory Sweeney – baritone)
Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 3, 6
Liebeslieder Walzer, Op 52

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 28 July, 5pm

This concert had been originally scheduled for the evening, but was moved to 5pm when it was realised that it clashed with the Orpheus Choir’s major performance of Bernstein’s Candide in the Town Hall.

The clash would probably have been more damaging to the Bach Choir than to its big cousin. As a result (I suppose), quite a large audience came to this concert. A good programme was available giving words in both German and English with informative notes about the composers and the works.

The choir was on very good form. The balance and ensemble were admirable and the choir held audience attention through their sensitive variations in dynamics and articulation. Though probably with too few tenors, and perhaps as a whole, not presenting quite the level of vocal polish of the women, the men’s contribution was more than adequate.

Mendelssohn composed the set of open air songs to be sung on a summer evening in a forest near Frankfurt and a letter to his mother described their delightful effect in words that could, with a few modifications, describe this performance. They were, naturally, set for unaccompanied singing, and the choir generally avoided the problem of slipping intonation.  The texts included three poems by Heine, together entitled Tragödie, first published in 1837 in a collection called ‘Salon’, and later collected in Neue Gedichte of 1844. They tell a typical tale of ill-fated love, but in the last poem the lovers’ common grave is the tryst of blissful lovers of a later time,  oblivious of the earlier event. The musical settings did not perhaps capture the tone of fatalism though it was hinted through understated musical figures and moods. The sixth poem, Auf dem See by Goethe, expresses in words and music an optimism in the superiority of present life and love over the longings of a dream world, and the choir captured it in fast, joyous triple time.

Mendelssohn’s six open air songs are hardly masterpieces; the settings follow a conventional strophic pattern, in which the last two lines of the text are usually repeated; melodies are pleasant if not especially memorable.

The other Mendelssohn songs were four of his Six Duets, Op 63, and they were scattered through the rest of the programme. They were sung, with Douglas Mews at the piano, by Rebekah Giesbers, mezzo soprano and Ailsa Lipscombe, soprano; the two voices blended very agreeably and the guileless spirit of words and music emerged happily from them. Again, however, the somewhat formulaic pattern of the settings and their avoidance of anything in the nature of tragedy or fatefulness lent them an air of blandness.

So it was a good idea to intersperse them with the three somewhat more profound and complex Brahms songs, taken from different collections, between the late 1860s and 1877, all sung by baritone Rory Sweeney.  The first, Die Mainacht by Hölty, was a bit of a warm-up for the singer, but he dealt very capably with the second and third songs, Feldeinsamkeit and Botschaft, minor poems but both intrinsically more interesting songs than Mendelssohn’s, capturing a more enigmatic mood and Brahms’s gift for illuminating the words. He managed to highlight the quoted words of the message (Botschaft), creating an effective little dramatic scene.

Diedre Irons joined Mews to play three of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, in the original piano duet form. With the piano lid off, the sound, at least at the start, was rather coarse, and while Nos 3 and 6 were more refined there was an air of spontaneity about the performances.

Finally, the original version of Brahms’s Liebeslieder waltzes, Op 52, with both pianists, and the chorus (the original was envisaged for vocal quartet). Initially it sounded slightly loose in ensemble and articulation but by the third song things were going very well and the whole half-hour sequence was carried off with a panache and delight, an ever-changing spirit as Brahms was inspired by the light-hearted folk-based words with their little dramas and tableaux, that was hardly to have been expected.

With this concert of not altogether great and profound music, as well as other recent outings, the Bach Choir has recovered its position as one of Wellington’s important choirs, which causes one to look forward to their November concert of Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir.





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