in: Reviews

February 2, 2011

Barber, with Esoterica from Scandinavia

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In an age of uncertainty and flux, it is reassuring that one can rely on a few things other than death and taxes: for instance, the Seraphim Singers and Jennifer Lester will generally present some rarely-heard choral music worthy of greater exposure or actual premieres. They presented a particularly esoteric but satisfying program on Saturday, January 29, at Saint Paul Church in Cambridge. It was an evening of entirely Scandinavian composers with a single exception: Samuel Barber’s settings of prayers of Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard.

The opening Edvard Grieg psalm, Hvad est du dog skjøn (“How Fair Is Thy Face”), bore that composer’s instantly recognizable Norwegian melancholy. It was akin to a song in modified strophic form in four verses for baritone soloist with the chorus providing a rich accompaniment. The pure tuning of the ensemble and solo baritone Taras Leschishin made Grieg’s colorful harmonies stand out clearly, and the responsiveness of the singers to the ever rising and falling dynamics was exemplary. One only wondered if the last degree of authenticity might have been attained if (given its brevity) the piece had been sung in the original rather than a rhyming English translation.

The next piece was by another Norwegian, Knut Nystedt, born in 1915 — a mere eight years after Grieg’s death — and still with us. He is familiar in this country mainly for a single choral piece, “Immortal Bach,” but on this occasion we heard his Missa Brevis. The Kyrie features the expanding tone clusters characteristic of “Immortal Bach” and seems to drift in and out of tonality. Such dissonance paradoxically requires extra-careful intonation from the singers, and they were decidedly on form. The Gloria featured a dance-like rhythm and imitative writing, alternating with more serenely contemplative moments. In the concluding Agnus Dei more tuning challenges were met: bare octaves, more tone clusters, a luscious jazz chord or two, and a final, gently dissonant chord that trailed away into the ether. To the layperson, this work may not be consistently “user-friendly,” but the Seraphim Singers and Jennifer Lester made a strong case for it by their painstaking, committed performance.

Another custom at Seraphim concerts is the inclusion of some purely instrumental music. The first was Episodio by Danish composer Niels la Cour (b. 1944) for cello and organ, played by Paul Mattal and Heinrich Christensen, respectively. This was a refreshingly unusual combination, with the intimacy of chamber music, yet, thanks to the generous acoustics of Saint Paul’s, one never strained to hear anything even in that huge space. Most striking to these ears was a section that seemed to evoke a string quartet texture: the repeated notes in the organ pedal line actually supplied the “cello,” the real cello played in viola range, while the organ supplied the two “violins” by means of a flute and a reed stop, played in soprano/alto range. The two players worked well together and surely in sympathy with the composer’s intentions.

Christensen also gave us the Allegro marcato movement from the Sonata in G Minor for organ by J.P.E. Hartmann (1805-1900), another Dane. The work showed the unmistakable influence of the composer’s contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn, but there were as well some forward-looking harmonies that reminded me of the later composer, Josef Rheinberger. Christensen played it with élan at the relatively minor price of having some fast passagework muddied by the reverberant room, and he whetted my appetite to hear the rest of the sonata.

The Prayers of Kierkegaard by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), written for chorus, soprano, and orchestra, convincingly rendered here by Christensen on the organ, consist of four connected sections, each with its own style. The first (“O Thou Who art unchangeable . . .”) commences with tenors and basses in unison, as in a medieval chant; the orchestra enters gently but soon builds to the great, declamatory entrance of the full chorus: “But nothing changes Thee, O Thou unchanging!” The second section (“Lord Jesus Christ Who suffered all life long . . .”) features a lyrical soprano solo, sung affectingly by Emily Howe, who managed to make it at once lamenting and supplicatory, if not ideally enunciated. This leads directly into the third section whose theme is summarized: “Father in heaven, longing is Thy gift.” This part reaches the dramatic climax of the whole piece before culminating in the noble chorale-like final section (“Hold not our sins up against us”). Barber’s work was surely one of the high points of the program for its scale and drama. The singers and conductor were alive to the changes of mood and style; they conveyed the drama viscerally.

Another high point remained, however: Saul by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland (b. 1924), a scène de théâtre with music. Narrator Gregory Merklin tells the tale of Saul’s spearheading the persecution of Christians. The sopranos and altos begin to chant softly in aleatoric fashion behind the narration, the men join them, and all unite in stark octaves at “Saul breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” which is reinforced by a descending fortissimo organ line coalescing into a dissonant chord. The process repeats until the crucial point when Saul is on the road to Damascus. Then the choir enacts the voice of the Divine, a simple minor chord in subdued, mournful tone: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” The question is repeated with growing intensity until it culminates in an anguished choral climax leading into an earthshaking organ chord of grinding discord. Following a dramatic pause, the subdued, mournful voice returns and “Saul” is stage-whispered twice over it. The End. This is particularly compelling because it breaks off at the critical moment when (if one didn’t already know the story) anything could happen. The performers convincingly covered the immense range from thundering rage to searing anguish to whispering grief and gave the audience a most powerful experience.

After such a wrenching piece, it was probably wise to close with something akin to a balm, Ave Maris Stella (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) by Swedish organist and composer Otto Olsson (1879-1964). This beautiful piece, written in 1912, sounds often as though it could have been written in 1612, with its Baroque-style counterpoint and modal harmonies. The singers, as always, noticeably listened to each other, resulting in a satisfying unanimity of tuning and dynamics. One must salute the Seraphim Singers, Jennifer Lester, and Heinrich Christensen for their intrepid programming and unflinching commitment in performing difficult but rewarding repertoire at a very high level.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this review and certainly wish I could have attended this concert. I must take issue with “He is familiar in this country mainly for a single choral piece, “Immortal Bach,”…”
    Nystedt’s motets, often written in English, are variously referred to as his “American motets” and “written in college-choir style.” O Crux, Be Not Afraid, Cry Out and Shout, and many more are quite familiar through the work of Frank Pooler, Kenneth Jennings, and Leland Sateren, conducting the touring choirs of Lutheran colleges. Nystedt also wrote extensively for church and youth choirs- his church works are generally staples of decent choirs in the Midwest.

    Perhaps “He is familiar in the Eastern Time Zone mainly….” ?

    Comment by josh nannestad — February 5, 2011 at 9:13 am

  2. Yes, if I were revising the review, I would rephrase that to: “He is best known in this country for “Immortal Bach”. I suppose I must concede a certain degree of regional bias, though, in my defense, I did attend a midwestern college/conservatory (albeit non-Lutheran) and have occasionally heard touring choirs of that region without becoming aware of the other Nystedt pieces you mention. I stand happily corrected.

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — February 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

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