Emmanuel Music completed the first year of its chamber series devoted to the music of Hugo Wolf and Felix Mendelssohn Sunday afternoon, with the last of Wolf’s Mörike Lieder and Mendelssohn’s Octet.
In this outing, the first half of the concert was given over to the Mörike Lieder, from 1888, with singers Kendra Colton (soprano) and Mark McSweeney (baritone) alternating. Both McSweeney, who began the half, and Colton, who closed it, sang with expressivity and clear enunciation, showcasing the versatility of their voices. Brett Hodgdon collaborated on piano, sublime as ever. In these songs are moments of great drama, passion and pleasure; McSweeney captured these in the opening two—“Auftrag” being worthy of a music hall and “Um Mitternacht” an exercise in self-consciously profundo writing. Colton shone in “Rat einer Alten,” a comedic number of love advice from an older woman to a younger, and in “Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens,” an impassioned operatic tale of discovering love. (The full program is here, although who sang which song is not specified.)
Wolf seems to have three distinct personalities on Mörike Lieder, and all were on display. There is a delight in music hall song with comedy and light delivery. There is a seriousness of music which comes through in self-aggrandizing songs for a discriminating and refined audience. Finally there is a religiosity which is closer to individual piety than collective Lutheran performance rituals (as in Bach, or even in Mendelssohn’s Elijah)—here heard in “Auf eine Christblume I” and “Gebet” (both well-sung by Colton), the former a less successful capturing of religious sentiment than the latter. In many ways, “Bei einer Trauung” (here sung by McSweeney) captures recurring facets throughout these songs: a tension between words and music, a joy in sorrow, and a pleasure in the musical setting between the words. Certainly reading the texts beforehand I could not predict how Wolf would respond to Mörike’s poetry and some of the settings were surprising in their comedy or seriousness.
In his prefatory remarks, artistic director Ryan Turner noted that some did not see the connections between Mendelssohn and Wolf (born in 1860, 13 years after Mendelssohn’s death). He might have been responding to BMInt reviews of earlier concerts in this series. To me the connection is still not clear. I am also curious to know more about the ordering of these Mörike Lieder over the course of the three concerts; the published version can be found here). More than just alternating between singers, it is almost as though these songs have been ordered to highlight the different sides of Wolf. There is value in that, but it does little to connect him to Mendelssohn. The result was that this concert felt like two short concerts joined by an intermission. During intermission a friend commented on the program order, remembering past concerts where Mendelssohn’s Octet was the reward after the slog. Wolf was not a slog here, but it was another musical world, the town atop the mountain which is the next train stop after leaving the valley.
Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat is a much loved work which never seems to lose its charms and thrills. The performance by violinists Gabriela Diaz, Rose Drucker, Karen Oosterbaan, Lena Wong, violists Joan Ellersick and Noriko Futagami Herndon, and cellists David Russell and Cora Swenson Lee brought ecstasy. Ellersick was a linchpin throughout and Swenson Lee, whom I had not heard previously, was a treat to discover, especially in the Presto opening, which is so difficult to get to speak clearly. Unlike many performances today where two established string quartets come together, these musicians know one another, have performed together, and came together as a truly cohesive eight-person ensemble. Some of the tempi were more restrained than often heard, a happy revelation: the music bloomed, especially in the minor-key modulation of the opening Allegro moderato con fuoco. I hope they perform this octet together again.
Emmanuel Music continues this Wolf/Mendelssohn chamber series next year, exploring Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, details announced soon.