Friday, June 14, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir performs "Psalms & Praise" - works of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, directed by its chief conductor Oded Shomrony, signed out of its 2012-2013 season with “Psalms and Praise”, an evening of music by Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Soloists were soprano Daniela Skorka and baritone Oded Reich. The festive event took place in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on June 9th 2013. The choir was joined by the Israel Chamber Orchestra. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, consisting of some 150 singers, was founded in 1987 by Yehuda Fikler. The largest choral enterprise in Israel, it exists, in fact, as five separate ensembles, each with its own repertoire and performing schedule, each with its own conductor, but with one joint concert a year. The five choirs are as follows: The Oratorio Singers, under the direction of Mrs. Na’ama Nazrati,  Bel Canto, under the direction of Mrs. Noa Burstein, Cantabile, under the direction of Mrs. Flora Vinokurov,  Capelata, under the direction of Mrs. Shelly Berlinsky, and The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, under the direction of Mr. Ofer dal Lal. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1805-1847), Felix’s elder sister, was a child prodigy, the possibilities of her having a professional musical career as an adult, however, sadly dashed by her being the daughter of a better class family. Much of her musical activity was organizing biweekly Sunday musicales held in the family residence in Berlin. These house concerts became an important musical centre of the 1830s; these matinees also served as a stage for Fanny’s playing and for her development as a composer. It was here that her choral-, chamber- and piano music was performed and heard by a wide range of musical aficionados from Berlin society. Between June 1831 to January 1832, Fanny Mendelssohn produced three cantatas, “Lobesgesang” (Hymn of Praise) being one of them. Composed in the style of Bach’s Christmas cantatas, it includes a pastoral instrumental introduction, a three-section imitative chorus (Psalm 62), an accompanied recitative for female voice (Gospel of St. John, Song of Songs), a free-composed aria on a hymn by Johann Mentzner and a chorale fantasia. The Oratorio Choir concert opened with this work. The singers dealt well with its contrapuntal textures as well as its expressive- and dynamic aspects. Their singing was clean and articulate, with a warm, blended choral sound, well suited to Romantic music. Daniela Skorka’s solo singing was forthright and confident, contending competently with the orchestra. Here was a fine opportunity to hear a work of this outstanding- and sorely neglected composer; referring to Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy as “the other Mendelssohn” would be doing her a grave injustice.

The other works on the program were all by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847). From his years of study with Carl Friedrich Zelter (a prominent song composer, director of the Berlin Singakademie and friend of Goethe), the arrangement of chorales had played an important role for the composer and he continued to be occupied with the protestant chorale throughout his symphonic and oratorical works. Mendelssohn’s familiarity with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion led to a series of cantatas based on well-known chorale melodies for choir, instruments and sometimes soloists. Composed in 1830, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (O Head so bruised and wounded), based throughout on the Latin hymn of the same name so familiar to us from J.S.Bach’s settings of it in the St. Matthew Passion, clearly pays homage to Bach and the Lutheran tradition (Felix himself, following his paptism, was a religious Lutheran), reflecting Mendelssohn’s perceptive and creative treatment of chorales and interest in “musical antiquarianism”.  The chorale cantata is a vivid and dramatic depiction of the awe at meeting the wounded and dying Christ. Baritone Oded Reich, frequently heard in performance of Baroque works, took on board the religious mood and intensity of the aria, here allowing for an approach to Romantic vocal style. The choir’s singing displayed the composer’s contrapuntal prowess, joined by vivid playing on the part of the orchestra.

Mendelssohn is quoted as saying “Everything comes together in Sebastian”. Also based on a chorale used by Bach, and translated by Bach into German from the Latin, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (My God whose wisdom guides me), composed before 1829, is scored for voices and strings. Following Oratorio’s fine blending of voices and warmth of sound in the opening chorale, there was a little confusion of entries in the second – a polyphonic, neo-Baroque chorus of fast-moving upper voices against the slower chorale melody sung in the bass. Skorka’s reading of the lilting aria, clothed in Mendelssohn’s warm, Romantic sensibility, carried a sense of well-being. With buoyant singing of the final chorale, largely in octaves, but with a welcoming harmonic last phrase, the choir brought the work to a satisfying end.

The most popular of Mendelssohn’s Psalm settings is Psalm 42 “Wie der Hirsch schreit” (Like as the hart desireth), its first sketches made on his wedding trip in 1837. The work consists of seven movements, requiring a solo soprano, a male quartet and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus. Drawing all these threads together, Maestro Shomrony achieved a very nice result with his singers: a sense of assurance, of joy, of expressive mellowness and dynamic flexibility. The performance took the audience into the fabric of Mendelssohn’s exquisite melodies, their delicate sentimentality and meditation. Daniela Skorka sang into the text’s meaning. The aria “Meine Seele dürstet nach Gott” (For my soul thirsteth for God), with the solo oboe weaving in and out of Skorka’s vocal line, made for an especially poignant movement. Adding to the work’s timbral richness was the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s pleasing complement of horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani.

Conductor, arranger and composer Oded Shomrony is musical director of the Adi Choir of the New Vocal Ensemble, the baritone of the Thalamus Quartet and a lecturer at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. This Mendelssohn program constituted one of the most beautiful of the annual Oratorio concerts.  The printed program, in Hebrew and English, was informative and comprehensice. Maestro Shomrony’s dedication and superior musicianship made the concert rewarding to performers and listeners alike. His attention to detail, dynamics, timbre and issues of diction and German pronunciation gave good results. Soloists Daniela Skorka and Oded Reich added excellence and inspiring solo singing to the evening. Mendelssohn’s choral works encompass the breadth of his career; nowhere is his soul more poignantly exposed than in his choral works, which exude dream-like tranquility and idealism. His works and those of Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy deserve to be performed more and to be better known.

No comments: