in: Reviews

May 2, 2016

Mendelssohn Beyond the Facile

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Probably the most remarkable aspect of Felix Mendelssohn as a composer, other than his frighteningly early manifestation of talent, was his mastery of technique. Informed largely by J.S. Bach and inspired more by the formality of the Classical period than the passions of the Romantic one in which he lived, his works are marvels of facility. The challenge for performers when taking them on is to make music out of all that craftsmanship. The Arneis Quartet was able to accomplish this brilliantly last Sunday when they performed an all-Mendelssohn concert at Emmanuel Church in the fourth and final program of Emmanuel Music’s “Mendelssohn/Wolf Chamber Series, Year II.”

After some introductory remarks by Emmanuel Music’s Artistic Director Ryan Turner, the group opened with Four Pieces for String Quartet, a collection of individual movements cobbled together posthumously by the composer’s publisher. The first two, a somewhat dry tema con variazone and an impish scherzo, are from 1847, his last year of life. They are followed by an academically sophisticated fugue that was most likely a student work written when he was 16, and a trippingly dark capriccio written in 1843. These last two highlighted the ensemble’s adept ability for finding sonic expression in the notes on the page. Through broad phrasing and subtle dynamic shading, they brought out the eloquence embedded in the composer’s fugal machinery; and they infused vivid vibrancy into the capriccio’s intricately imitative gestures, molding and leading them to a bold and exciting conclusion.

Following the Four Pieces, the group was joined by mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal for the Sechs Gesänge, op. 99, a setting of texts by various German poets, including Goethe and Eichendorff. Originally for voice and piano, the latter part was performed here by the quartet in an arrangement by Turner with help from the Arneis members. While skillfully done, they offered a perhaps unintended demonstration of the challenges in transcribing across rather different sounding instruments. The chorale-like textures of “Lieblingsplätzchen” or the simple homorhythms of “Wenn sich zwei Herzen scheiden” translated beautifully into the strings’ sonorities. On the other hand, we missed the percussive attacks of a piano in the gallant horn calls of “Das Schifflein” or the agitated arpeggios of “Es weiβ und rät es doch keiner.” Regardless, the quartet supplied a well-blended support for Dellal, who sang all the songs with a rich though not overbearing tone and remarkable expressive subtlety. Her ability to suggest various characters with almost imperceptible changes in tone color proved particularly compelling in “Die Sterne schau’n in stiller Nacht,” adding a moving dimension to the sweetness of the narrative.

Arneis Quartet (Linder photo)

Arneis Quartet (Linder photo)

Violist Joan Ellersick joined the foursome in the String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87 from 1845, far and away the most ambitious piece we heard. The five delivered the opening Allegro vivace with fierce energy and forceful phrasing that sounded especially effective in driving the movement’s somewhat overbearing development section. The second movement, an andante scherzando, is another example of the composer’s propensity for technical bravado even when he was having fun, though its playful winks could have been made even livelier by a slightly more mischievous interpretation. The third movement, marked Adagio e lento, stood as perhaps the most complex  section of the most interpretively challenging work of the evening. Fraught with drama and emotional tension, it is deeply expressive, though not without its pitfalls. While the melodramatic sforzandi and the funereal drum patterns could easily have descended into the maudlin in lesser hands, these players tempered them just enough, weaving an overall performance of powerful poignancy.  They gave the last movement the same spirited vitality as the first, rounding out the work with an energetic finale.

On a final note, this writer would like to congratulate Kate Kush upon her retirement as Emmanuel Music’s Board President after six years of expert stewardship in leading one of Boston’s most eminent and cherished musical institutions.

Composer Tom Schnauber, co-founder of the Boston-based arts organization WordSong, who also teaches music at Emmanuel College,  holds a Ph.D. in Composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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