Boston’s Back Bay Chorale fantastically performed an all-Viennese concert at Sanders Theater on Saturday night featuring Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C Minor, K. 427; Beethoven’s classic “Hallelujah” chorus from an early oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, op. 85; one of Haydn’s most rousing shorter works, the Te Deum in C Major; and Arnold Schoenberg’s remarkable Friede auf Erden.
The opening tones of “Hallelujah” announced that this would be a splendid experience for the listeners. One of the evening’s several pieces to refer musically to Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s largely polyphonic work demanded a healthy, rich, full-balanced sound, punctuated by well-marked (but not double-dotted) articulation from the orchestra. The faster violin and woodwind filigree could be clearly heard through the big blocks of choral sound from three full rows of mixed chorus ringing the stage.
Beethoven’s full oratorio Christus am Ölberge dwells on Jesus’ vigil before his crucifixion, but in the end Christ, sung by a tenor, announces the coming victory over the powers of Hell, and the piece concludes with a triumphal chorus of angels. This reading employed the English version of that chorus rather than a translation of the original German.
Brilliant musicianship was the order of the evening, as Haydn’s splendid Te Deum continued a unifying thread which culminated with Mozart’s incomplete Mass in C Minor. Like the Beethoven, the fugal coda was presented at a faster tempo than the body of the work. Haydn set this Latin text as a cantata mass, and it shows evidence of the many Handelian concerts he heard on trips to London. The opening intonation, quoted from the Catholic liturgy, was beautifully presented by the brass, and then developed by the chorus from a lusty unison. The central Sanctus section was marked by well-sculpted phrasing with notable expressive nuances at the “aperuisti” and “Te ergo quaesumus.” The latter section was the most dramatic of the work, as both the orchestra and the chorus dropped to a more intimate dynamic level, allowing the chorus to dominate.
As first encounter has a special kind of excitement. Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is not a new piece; it was written in 1907, cancelled because the singers couldn’t master the work, and finally premiered in 1911—this is the first time the Back Bay Chorale has tackled it. Polyrhythms are frequent, and Schoenberg’s harmony, while still close to the late 19th-century mainstream, definitely looks forward to his upcoming abandonment of key-centered composition.
The Chorale delivered this fiercely difficult piece confidently, moving quickly through contrasting sections with a minimum of rubato. Jarrett’s addition of the almost always omitted orchestral parts Schoenberg wrote to support the voices was most gratifyingly unusual. The winds were only audible as supporting players, but the strings provided warmth and forward movement through the long melodies.
The emotional impact of the text—a Christmas poem with a potent anti-war message by the Swiss poet and historical novelist Conrad Meyer—was stunning. Jarrett chose to create unity between the sections by taking a more classical (rather than romantic) approach to phrasing. The challenging soprano part was supported with excellent tone and stamina, with no intonation problems through the many descending passages.
Schoenberg created a moving, surging chorale, setting the text in a complex, polyphonic style over a densely written orchestration. Jarrett led the singers and the orchestral forces in a potent rendition—one that could make even the most jaded subscriber change his mind about Schoenberg and the true nature of his artistic achievement.
The Mass at the heart of the program is Mozart’s direct response both to Italian operatic trends and to Handel’s great oratorios (such as the Messiah). Unfortunately, Mozart never completed his two greatest choral works: the Requiem and the Great Mass in C Minor. He had begun the Mass as a celebration of his marriage (not as a commission), at a concert in Salzburg a year later; the virtuosic soprano I solos were written for his wife Constanze. By the time the premiere arrived, the Mozarts had already lost their firstborn son, Raimund Leopold, and it was less than a year before the Austrian Emperor would cease commissions for concerted masses for public consumption.
Jarrett conducted the work exactly as Mozart left it, with a complete Kyrie, Gloria and Benedictus, just the existing fragments of the Credo and Sanctus, and no Agnus Dei at all. The grand scale of Mozart’s conception comes across clearly, although it’s shocking to hear a Credo with no crucifixion and no resurrection. Still, the incomplete original remains a formidable piece, and has been recorded with similarly brisk tempi by such esteemed conductors as Paul McCreesh and Harry Christophers. The colors were light and bright, contrasting with heavier, more romantic interpretations as in the many recordings of Helmut Rilling.
Another highlight of the evening was not one but a pair of powerhouse sopranos. Joanna Mongiardo and Jacquelyn Stucker deliciously intertwined their voices in the Benedictus and balanced by the equally talented Patrick Waters and Bradford Gleim in the sparser tenor and bass parts.
Mozart wrote for a solo quartet of two sopranos, tenor, and bass—fairly unusual. Mongiardo possesses a light, extremely flexible voice, perfectly in scale Saturday. Stucker, who is finishing a doctoral degree in voice at NEC, has a bright career ahead of her. She brought dramatic flair and flexibility to the operatic Laudamus te and maintained a rich, clear tone through all registers; this created a fascinating contrast in the soprano duet by bringing out the dueling interpretations and timbres.
The Back Bay Chorale has been directed for the past 11 years by Scott Allen Jarrett, who is well-known locally for his musical leadership at BU’s Marsh Chapel. From the musical spirit he exposed, Jarrett appears to direct as a participant as much as leader in the united force of voices, instrumentalists, musicology, and audience. Soloists received rapt attention from the other executants, the chamber ensembles within larger works were well-balanced, and singers knew their parts, focusing on dynamics and blend. The long standing ovation bodes well for the Chorale’s future plans (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Durufle’s Requiem) in the spring and continued community events as part of their successful “Bridges.” The printed booklet contained notes and translations for the whole season, allowing subscribers to preview and plan for upcoming attractions.
Although concluding with a well-known masterwork, the combination of First and Second Viennese School composers was different from most Boston choral programming. It was a pleasure to see them approach Mozart and Haydn with the same mixture of passion and attention to individuals and sections that most lavish on Brahms, Ravel, and Mendelssohn. The ensemble met the challenges of sustaining the constantly shifting textures in high professional style.