On an amber alert night of flash-flood warnings, an intrepid audience trekked to Sanders Theater to hear the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus join forces with period-instrument orchestra Grand Harmonie for two under-performed but fine choral works of Felix Mendelssohn. Conductors Michael Pfitzer and Edward Elwyn Jones directed the 3 Hymns, Op. 96 (Psalm 13), and Hymn of Praise (Lobgesang), Op. 52, respectively. Soprano Elisa Sunshine, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Krouner, and tenor Steven D. Myles, enhanced performances that ranged from adequate to accomplished.
After a quite lengthy tuning, the 3 Hymns’ instrumental introduction clearly exemplified the unconventional (to modern ears) sound of an early Romantic period instrument tutti dominated by the woodwinds and brass while the strings enriched the texture and added warmth. Englishman J. C. Broadley commissioned Mendelssohn to set a selection of his English metrical psalm settings, but their initial 1843 publication included both English and German texts; on this occasion, we heard the original English. Although the composer’s method of text-setting had less variety than in many of his other choral works—largely, mezzo presenting text and melody first, chorus imitating her with added harmony, and instrumental interludes interspersed throughout—his attractive melodies and skillful writing for both solo voice and choral voices held this listener’s interest consistently.
As primary “narrator,” Rebecca Krouner displayed an attractive, well-focused sound; her conversationally natural delivery might have verged on casual by some standards, but it did not generally impede intelligibility. The chorus’s consonants (echoing Krouner in the same text) were not a great deal softer, but the comprehension rate deteriorated to a surprising degree. In the first two sections, as the text (e.g., “Lord, how long wilt Thou forget me?”) warranted, all the performers created a mood of melancholy that never crossed into despondency.
In the third section (“Lord, Thy truth and loving-kindness I will trust in evermore”), Pfitzer elicited a more uplifting effect from his forces though Krouner’s rather frequent predilection for a quasi-operatic chest register sounded less appropriate here. The lighter articulation of Grand Harmonie’s players also contributed to a more optimistic frame of mind, as befit the words.
It was a bit enigmatic to find a fourth section listed in a piece entitled “3 Hymns,” and here, too, Mendelssohn elected to change course somewhat. In fugal/contrapuntal mode, “Lord, in thankful exultation to Thy Name I fain would sing” is the one purely choral movement. The chorus delineated the individual lines clearly, while achieving considerably less dynamic variety than they might have. Towards the end, a long pedal point on the dominant lamentably missed an opportunity to build up to an electrifying ending rather than a simply emphatic one. Still, it was gratifying to hear a seldom-done work, and the use of period instruments provided an added bonus.
While the Hymn of Praise (possibly more familiar as Lobgesang), Op. 52, is sometimes done these days, (the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus rendered it memorably under British conductor Bramwell Tovey in January 2012), it remains something of a rarity. Mendelssohn may have had extra inspiration as this is one of two choral works (along with the Festgesang-Holiday Cantata) written in 1840 as part of the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press (particularly, the Gutenberg Bible). The Lobgesang, a “symphony-cantata”, opens with three instrumental movements before the voices’ first entrance. While it is earlier than the Op. 96, it is musically more ambitious and adventuresome. There is more variety of musical material within movements, yet the multiple movements are more knit together, by means of a number of easily remembered motifs. Interestingly, its reception in 1840 was not comparable to the composer’s greatest successes; it seems to have been slightly too progressive for the traditionalists and not nearly radical enough for the avant garde. In the latter camp, Richard Wagner seems to have dismissed it as aspiring to imitate and pay tribute to Beethoven’s revolutionary Ninth Symphony and falling woefully short. De gustibus non est disputandum. For this performance, Edward Elwyn Jones took over on the conductor’s podium.
Unexpectedly, things got off to a bumpy beginning. While Grand Harmonie’s intonation in the first work may not have been immaculate, it was very good. Much of the opening instrumental movement of Lobgesang, however, is based on a fanfare motif, generally played in octaves, which often revealed curdled intonation. Also, some balances were not ideal: typically, 16th-note string passagework was nearly concealed at times by brass chords and timpani. Some compensation came from a healthy dynamic range, noticeably more generous than in the Op. 96. Balances and intonation improved (though the latter still had occasional imperfections throughout) with a smooth transition into the doleful second movement. Jones achieved something moving from melodic instruments here, both strings and winds in their turns.
Following a similarly expressive third movement, the chorus stood when the fourth began, and the great motif from Movement I (“All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord”) had words for the first time. This was an undeniable high point even if the mood of cheerfulness could have risen to true elation. Sharper enunciation would have helped this, as well as conveying the text more clearly. It seems, many a choir needs reminding that “stage diction” applies to choruses as much as to actors and solo singers.
We heard soprano Elisa Sunshine for the first time in “Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit”, sweet and clear of tone, and sensitive to her two roles as soloist and soprano section leader. In the sixth movement (“Sing ye praise”) tenor Steven D. Myles supplied exemplary stage diction, crisp but unexaggerated, and a handsome voice. He also allowed himself considerable expressivity by being out of his score most of the time.
The orchestra did some of its finest playing and the chorus some affecting singing under Jones’s guidance in “All ye that cried unto the Lord”. The sorrows, distress, and deep affliction of which the text speaks were palpable. In “I waited for the Lord”, the melody was collegially passed among Sunshine, Krouner, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus which again seemed more conscious of creating mood as well as enunciating words themselves.
The most theatrical movement of the work is “The sorrows of death had closed all around me”, and Myles seized his opportunity. Ringing high notes, powerful enunciation, and continual eye contact made his description of “hell’s dark terrors” riveting. And it was a dramatic moment indeed when his final question—“Watchman, will the night soon pass?” —was answered by the soprano (with the ideal name of Sunshine), “The night is departing!”
After having the soprano elaborate on this theme, Mendelssohn has the inspired idea to insert the one Lutheran chorale of the whole work, Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God). The first verse, a capella, is close in style to J. S. Bach, though Jones reminded us that Mendelssohn is writing 100 years later by making much of the dynamic contrasts, some gradual and some terraced. In the second verse, we are wholly into the Romantic when the orchestra joins with an elaborate, colorful accompaniment.
Sunshine and Myles collaborated smoothly in “My song shall be alway Thy mercy”, shaping their phrases consistently with one another, although they more than once seemed to favor a slightly brisker tempo than Jones was indicating. Given that this was a gentler, non-fanfare song of praise, I inclined toward the conductor.
At the start of the choral finale, “Ye nations, offer to the Lord glory and might!,” Jones directed with a rousing fervor, but the chorus, a bit scorebound, did not return it to him in full measure. With the commencement of the fugue, though, things improved: closer attention to the conductor and (probably consequently) more energy and rhythmic spark. Dynamics also emerged more prominently here; diminuendos to soft passages set up well-judged extended crescendos. The closing pages became more homophonic to bring in the final reprise of the “All that has life and breath…” fanfare and lead to a stirring conclusion.
Even on a night when some of the performers may not have been at their apex, solid music-making revealed two pieces with which, I daresay, only a small minority of the audience had even passing familiarity. The engaging of an authentic-instrument orchestra that focuses exclusively on the Classical and Romantic periods may have created unusual challenges and the odd minor problem, but their sound was a new and revelatory experience for most. Finally, I must commend both Jones and Pfitzer for each going the extra mile and joining the Harvard-Radcliffe tenor section when not conducting. I am sure this paid some significant psychological dividends within the chorus!