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Harp, Horns, and Choir Make Splendid Music


The poet W. H. Auden disliked the music of Brahms. But he might have thought otherwise, had he heard the performance of Four Songs for women’s chorus, two horns, and harp at Boston’s Church of the Advent on February 6, in a concert co-sponsored by the Harvard Musical Association. Brahms composed this piece early in his career for the Hamburg Women’s Chorus. It was sung here by the Advent Choir under Mark Dwyer’s direction, with Ursula Holliger, harp, and Thomas Haunton and Richard Menaul, French horns, in a sumptuous acoustic to great effect. It is a pity that this piece is not performed more, a fate which applies as well to muchof Brahms’s early choral music. According to Brahms biographer Malcolm MacDonald, “Had Brahms written nothing but these four choruses he would deserve to be remembered as one of the lyric masters of the Romantic period.” For Friday’s program, the choir stood facing the audience, rather than in their choir stalls. Dwyer’s conducting was efficient and rarely flamboyant; the same could be said for his organ playing. Mendelssohn’s A major sonata’s first movement came across with confidence.

The program, though, was top-heavy with Mendelssohn, appropriate for his bicentennial but still leading to a certain lack of variety. The choir’s singing throughout was splendid, but they could certainly have bitten deeper into enunciation of German consonants. The second half brought Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria. Audience enthusiasm seemed to build with the return of Holliger for a splendid rendition of Rheinberger’s rarely performed Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.

This year is the anniversary of the birth of many famous composers, but last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams. This concert featured two of his pieces: Serenade to Music and Five Mystical Songs. Despite some well-known disparaging remarks about the composer’s output by a usually discerning American critic, a superb DVD, “O Thou Transcendent,” by Tony Palmer, demonstrates that Vaughan Williams is a composer to be reckoned with.

The five songs were strongly delivered by baritone Glenn Billingsley, a member of the choir, who gladly left his chorus perch to sing these wonderful pieces with a near operatic palette. Heinrich Christiansen, organist at King’s Chapel, conducted with Dwyer playing the organ. The evening concluded with Mark Dwyer’s very effective arrangement of Serenade to Music for violin, organ and chorus. The purity of the choral tone, the grandeur of the Advent organ and the animation of Peter Zazofsky’s violin made a transcendent though not entirely idiomatic final impression.

with David Lapin

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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