In a bit of synchronicity and serendipity, the fourth and final year of Emmanuel Music’s Felix Mendelssohn/Hugo Wolf Chamber Series coincided on Sunday with the opening of Leipzig Week in Boston and fell the day after Mendelssohn’s 209th birthday. This trans-Atlantic cultural festival established to strengthen the alliance between the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (founded by Mendelssohn) also aims to “inspire new cultural exchanges and create a wide spectrum of performance and educational programs.” Sunday’s all-Mendelssohn concert consisted of solo songs, vocal duets, Lieder ohne Worte (songs without words, a genre of solo piano pieces essentially unique to the composer), and his first string quintet.
The program’s first section cleverly demonstrated the cross-fertilization between Mendelssohn’s works for voice (or two voices) and piano and those for solo piano. All the groups contained at least one piano piece and one song, performed with devoted singleness of purpose by pianist Judith Gordon, contralto Emily Marvosh, and soprano Jessica Petrus. The solo songs, though all settings of poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, came from a handful of different opus numbers, whereas the three duets and six Songs without Words comprised complete sets, Op. 77 and Book 6, Op. 67, respectively. All these compositions were from Mendelssohn’s later years (ages 28 – 36 of a musician who died tragically young at 38). The now familiar titles of the Songs without Words were appended by editors of later editions, the composer having shunned titles in order to let the listener form his/her own associations; Emmanuel’s program booklet respected Mendelssohn’s intentions, omitting the editors’ titles and listing only piece numbers and tempo markings. Gordon began with the Con moto in E-flat Major, shaping phrases handsomely and giving them full-blooded expressivity. The first duet, “Sunday Morning”, featured Petrus’s and Marvosh’s admirably matched timbres as well as carefully worked out rubati and subtle dynamics from all three musicians as they portrayed the intimacy of individual prayer against the vast expanse of creation.
In Op., 67, No. 2, Allegro non troppo in C Minor, Gordon brought out the wide-ranging melody over a breathless chordal accompaniment. Her variety of touch and tone pointed up Mendelssohn’s wealth of harmonic color and frequent interplay of major and minor. “The Forest Castle” begins as an adventure tale of an intrepid explorer in the woods at twilight but ends with elements of mythology and possible sorcery. Marvosh delivered a dramatic narrative that ended in mystery: the explorer is never seen again. “Song of Wandering” used the same German poetic motif of the joy of exploration, though with a slightly less troubling ending as the poet elects not to ask where the journey may end. Petrus and Gordon emphasized the restless energy of words (“Press on!”) and music, relaxing only at the end to imply that the wanderer has reached a destination (left deliberately ambiguous). Gordon charged Op. 67, No. 3, Presto e molto vivace in E Major, with even more energy yet still found room for momentary rubati. She also impressively made the lyrical theme sing amidst much whirling arpeggiation.
“Night Song’s” first two stanzas represent a lonely day’s lament end for the departure of joy, friends and the beloved, but the third anticipates the solace of the nightingale’s song and the divine promise of dawn the next day. Petrus and Gordon painted a subdued, wistful scene initially but smoothly transitioned into the warmly optimistic concluding mood.
Gordon utilized a range of articulation in Op. 67, No. 4, Andante in A major, via pedaling as well as fingers. She displayed continual contrast of legato and staccato, sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous. Two sotto voce final chords drew the listener in. Marvosh took on a pants role in “The Page’s Song,” the suitor traveling through meadows to his beloved’s window, that he might serenade her in the evening. The singer exuded the page’s charm while the pianist convincingly evoked the plucking of the mandolin as the hopeful young man played a sicilienne to his sweetheart.
Op. 67, No. 5, Agitato in A Minor is a characteristically Mendelssohnian moto perpetuo with 8th-note melodies emerging from a 16th-note chordal accompaniment. Gordon’s generally muted dynamic allowed for startling accents to jump out at various points. The duet “Song from Ruy Blas” compared love to the beauty of nature in bird choirs, flickering stars, and spring flowers. The singers’ tone reflected the text, “The voice, sweet and plangent”, and at the final line, “it must be love!”, they gave each other a knowing smile.
“The Field of Grain” told, essentially, a tale for children, describing the field as a carnival heartily enjoyed by crickets, the beetle and his wife, flies, and gnats, though it did not have the conventional happy ending: the field is mowed, “the festive hall is destroyed”, and the celebration is over. The singers gave free rein to their narrative instincts, acting out the story with expressive faces and body language, as if telling it to little kids. Gordon supported their efforts colorfully. The texture of Op. 67, No. 6, Andante con moto in A-flat Major was reminiscent of Frédéric Chopin’s Etude, Op. 25, No. 1 (“Aeolian Harp”), also in A-flat Major, but whereas Chopin left the melody in the soprano throughout, Mendelssohn alternated his between soprano and tenor and ultimately in both voices, two octaves apart. Gordon rendered it with suitable ardor and plush, velvety sound.
After intermission the program proceeded in reverse chronological order with Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 18. Completed when he was only just 17, it is thus contemporaneous with his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Arneis Quartet (Heather Braun-Bakken, violin, Rose Drucker, violin, Daniel Dona, viola, and Agnes Kim, cello) was augmented by guest violist Joan Ellersick. The opening Allegro con moto came forth with an easy rapport from the start, and the composer used the extra viola as an independent voice as well as to add subtle extra mid-range richness. The second movement, Intermezzo, serves as the slow movement, opening in a chaste manner but soon enough becoming more harmonically adventurous. The instrumentalists, too, expanded their expressive range as the writing became more rhapsodic with successive solos for the individual players. The unconventional ending consisted of two unexpected pizzicato chords.
The third movement, though titled “Scherzo”, is not the joke the term originally meant. In fact, it is a fugue (no doubt reflecting the young composer’s already strong interest in the music of J. S. Bach) driven by exciting, unyielding rhythm and the one movement in the minor mode. Although this fugue is not as rigorously constructed as one by Bach (e.g., the long developmental episode), Mendelssohn does bring back the subject in inversion before continuing to another surprising ending, quiet and in the major. The final movement also opens in a lively tempo, but the mood is considerably less serious, closer to the Classical conception of a scherzo. The second theme was smooth and more lyrical, but the movement as a whole alternated extended note values with vigorous passagework played with equal precision and passion. In this finale, as throughout, the quintet members set a high standard for attentiveness to each other, firm rhythm that could be flexible or relentless as required, and sweet, pure intonation. One must commend Emmanuel Music for providing such an auspicious beginning to this week’s celebration in Boston of Leipzig’s great musical legacy.
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. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.