Schumann a winner but Sibelius and Mendelssohn unconvincing in fine Bach Choir performances

Romantic Fairytales from the Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Michael Vinten

Sibelius: The Captive Queen
Mendelssohn: Loreley
Schumann: The Pilgrimage of the Rose

Douglas Mews – piano
Soloists: Bianca Andrew, Marian Hawke, Maaike Christie-Beekman, Oliver Sewell, Christian Thurston, Roger Wilson

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 8 August, 3 pm

Michael Vinten and his Bach Choir had decided to explore some pretty unexpected choral repertoire with this concert of mid-nineteenth century, plus a rather out-of-season, comparable work from half a century later.

I have to praise that initiative.
However, much of the choral music composed during that era has not stood the test of time. The problem can be ascribed to Romanticism, which encouraged composers to find new modes of expression, focusing on their own natures, and on stories that could be interpreted through non-theatrical music.

Traditional opera subjects drawn from Classical Antiquity and the Bible and the Middle Ages were rejected. At the same time, large middle classes arose, developing a taste for pubic orchestral and choral concerts, with ever-increasing numbers of players and singers. These could attract the new audiences which felt out of place in the expensive splendour of opera houses, and who were without the classical education necessary to follow many operas.

Some German composers tended to scorn opera, especially the Italian and French – Rossini, Donizetti, Auber, Boieldieu, Meyerbeer. Some tried to reinvent opera in the Romantic-German manner, like Weber, Spohr, Marschner; but it took the genius of Wagner to make it work.

The fashion for orchestral music telling a story in symphonic poems, and large-scale, theatrical-type choral compositions became the Romantic oratorio.

The Schumann work was an example of the folk-tale oratorio; Mendelssohn’s unfinished opera an example of the failed Romantic folk-tale opera.

Sibelius’s The Captive Queen is a late example of the secular cantata/oratorio; it served a political purpose, the Queen symbolizing the Finns, and her captors, the Russian Empire. I imagine its disappearance after its first performances is explained by the same reasons that left me unimpressed. Finlandia was a much more successful idea.

It seemed a pedestrian work, in a kind of pious, Victorian, English manner, with the composer struggling to find a convincing vein or melodic inspiration that would lift its lame poetry above a level of embarrassment. It would have been a blessing, though a harder learn, to have sung it in Finnish.

However, the choir sang with energy and conviction, though the men sounded thin in their introductory verses, before being buoyed up by the women. The other handicap was the absence of an orchestra which would at least have lent the music colour. I guess my feelings about the music (not the performance) are summed up by my scribbled question: “Was Sibelius’s heart really in it?  At least the choir makes the most of it”.

Mendelssohn’s Loreley was his operatic attempt at the end of his life, probably inspired by the wonderful soprano Jenny Lind. He’d written singspiels in his teens, but only one was produced: Die Hochzeit des Comacho. Its reception did not encourage him to persist.

But I couldn’t help wishing that he’d devoted his last year to something in which his gifts were real, like another string quartet, in the spirit of the one in F minor, Op 80. Again, understanding the words was embarrassing; onomatopoeic effects sounded childish; the cries for vengeance half-hearted. I could detect no theatrical instinct in the composer.

The soloist who sang the role of Leonora was the accomplished Marian Hawke, who lent it genuine feeling, and the choir sang with energy, though perhaps rather too driven, without sufficient rhythmic and dynamic variety and liveliness.

Happily, Schumann’s Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (The Pilgrimage of the Rose) was quite a different story. We are usually encouraged to believe that Schumann’s last years saw a decline in his musical creativity. As a serious Schumann lover, I’ve always been reluctant to take that without a fight, and here, for me, was pretty persuasive evidence of his non-declining musical powers.

The programme note seeks to deflect criticism of the character and worth of the oratorio (if that’s what it is), by mentioning its “slight narrative”, “little drama”, the numbers only “loosely joined”. That may be, but even if the words themselves, again unfortunately, in English, are naïve and straining for effect, the music has a persuasively genuine feel, creating a situation and narrative that in the context of fairy-story, becomes listenable on account of the beguiling music.  It’s the same case as quite a few operas with feeble libretti which succeed because of the music.

Michael Vinten and the chorus seemed to have been inspired by the lyrical and varied music, varied in tempi, with triple-time numbers here and there, and changes of mood and feeling that respond to the sense. The women of the choir became fairies with sprightly singing.

Bianca Andrew was affecting as The Rose and other soloists performed engagingly: their individual as well as ensemble numbers contributed eloquently to the telling of the story. It was a pleasure again to hear Marian Hawke whom I had not heard for a long time, before she reappeared in Days Bay’s Rosenkavalier last year. Both she and Maaike Christie-Beekman contributed in a lively and committed way. Occasionally, soloists moved to sing together, as a trio (Maaike, Marian and Oliver Sewell) or quartet, and this lent the performance greater dramatic life.

Tenor Oliver Sewell sang the big role of Max, the young lover of the Rose, not attempting an operatic style, but handling the rather narrative part seriously, with sensitively shaded dynamics.  Roger Wilson was a well-cast Gravedigger drawing, as usual, on what one feels is to some extent his own personality; and Christian Thurston found the sturdy role of The Miller and a narrator’s bass aria near the end, ‘This Sunday morn…’, well suited to the character of his voice.

In all, conductor, chorus and soloists, as well as Douglas Mews accompanying at the piano (and I wasn’t so conscious here of the need of an orchestra to provide colour and variety) brought this neglected work to life in a surprisingly attractive way.

It was of course, by far the largest work on the programme (just over an hour) and made the concert as a whole quite rewarding. Schumann and the performers involved in his work made the journey very worthwhile.


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