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Cappella Clausura Offer Fine Amalgam

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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel in 1842

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s solo piano cycle Das Jahr comprises 12 character pieces, each depicting one month of the year. Lois Shapiro performed it on Saturday night at Unitarian Universalist Church in Newton as part of a collaborative effort with Cappella Clausura, which interspersed choral selections from Hensel and Clara Schumann among the 12.

As Artistic Director Amelia LeClair elucidated, the sequence of 12 follows a logical course of keys, beginning in B major, going through mostly sharp keys in the first half, flat keys in the second and ending in A major. She chose the vocal works by to match either the preceding or following number. With the exception of one song by Clara Schumann, they sang all a cappella. Shapiro ran January/February and April/May without break, as indicated. LeClair introduced each month by reading the poetry Fanny had included in her autograph score.

Shapiro’s interpretative mastery made the composer’s intent clear, from the first note. Although one might have occasionally wished for a bigger sound from the piano (probably the result of the room’s sub-optimal acoustics), voicing was clear, dynamics covered the wide range Fanny notated, and varied articulations resulted in a marvelous textural palette. The cycle opens with the darkness of early January portrayed by a descending bass line that ends in an inverted B major chord. The three-measure phrase repeats one third step higher, ending on a D-sharp major chord, this time in root position. This opening would appear to represent the increasing daylight of early January. Shapiro’s interpretation supported this notion: the bass line resonated despite being pianissimo. Then we heard a subtle shift to piano and a crescendo to the D-sharp major chord. By the end we are in an exuberant presto that yields “attaca” (Fanny’s directive) to the wind driven Scherzo in 6/8 time that represents February. Shapiro’s sparkling touch evoked the blue sky, occasional snow flurry and increased light that is February. In March (the Easter month) Fanny quotes a Bach chorale before yielding to a driving close. In April lyricism alternates with delicate arpeggios, while May (subtitled “Fruhlingslied”), in 9/8 time, evokes a songful sweetness. June is a Largo serenade that evokes Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” Shapiro easily conveyed the changing moods that evoke spring and early summer. Throughout summer, autumn and winter Fanny continues to present the pianist with new challenges. Fanny communicates July’s insufferable heat musically with a descending fifth (a sigh) succeeded by a descending chromatic line. Summer storms are communicated by rising chords and tremolo in the bass. Counterpoint in the left hand accompanies the second statement of the opening theme. Throughout, the many musical and dramatic threads remained clear. September’s flowing river (continual 16th notes), October’s symphonic evocation of a hunt, November’s majestic passion and December’s blizzard (rapid 16th notes yielding to virtuosic arpeggios) finished off the year.

Six of the vocal intermezzi vocal came from Hensel’s Gartenlieder, op 3. Lockung, a traditional chorale, has a text which evokes the rustling of leaves in the forest. The full Capella Clausura delivered with a broad and resonant sound. Their enthusiasm and love for the material came across through clear diction, precise entrances, and cutoffs, and visual attentiveness to LeClair. They sang the subsequent numbers in alternating quartets formed from the eight singers. Cheerful part songs in which Fanny again exhibited her mastery of polyphony and voice leading, the Gartenlieder pay homage to nature’s beauty. In Der Strauss, a free-standing duet, alto Lisa Bloom and soprano Janet Stone sang the intermingled lines with expressive suppleness. The concert also included Clara Schumann’s Abendfeier, Gondoliera , and Ich Stand in dunkeln Traumen. Odes to love, these are more high-Romantic and certainly more personal than Fanny’s. “Ich Stand,” presented here in an arrangement for soprano and alto quartet, stood out. A gorgeous melody over chordal accompaniment, it evoked Clara’s sorrows and losses.

A Nachspiel (epilogue) quoted Bach’s “Das Alte Jahr Vergangen ist” (The Old Year Has Passed) with a solemnity that brought us back to earth after the dazzling journey that Fanny led. What a thrilling and exceptional evening!

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

10 Comments »

10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Wonderful concert! Great review!

    Comment by Elena Ruehr — November 21, 2023 at 6:39 pm

  2. So glad this music is receiving the spotlight it deserves! Such a fabulous concert featuring world-class musicians. Thank you to Cappella Clausura for putting on such a great concert and thank you to the Boston Musical Intelligencer for such a thoughtful review.

    Comment by Lawson Daves — November 21, 2023 at 6:58 pm

  3. Wonderful to hear Cappella Clausura doing great work!

    Comment by Wei En — November 21, 2023 at 8:57 pm

  4. Such an amazing concert!

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 22, 2023 at 9:59 am

  5. Sunday, November 19, 2023, I experienced what I believe has been a longtime goal of Amelia LeClair, Artistic Director of Cappella Clausura. To say that she “put together an amazing concert,” doesn’t come close to describing the amount of time and editing she put into scoring Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s “Das Jahr”. That, in itself, is a huge accomplishment that wouldn’t be recognized by most concertgoers.

    What makes it all worth it is that she has successfully presented the solo concertizing and collaboration skill of concert pianist Lois Shapiro and matched it, month by month, with the skill of her eight Cappella Clausura voices.

    I was thrilled to be sitting in the front row, so close to the piano I could read the music. I was in the presence of a fine concert pianist, and I could feel her sensitivity and her amazing strength as the piano shook.

    It allowed me to enjoy, up close, the variety of choral sound and piano expression in the concerts’ twelve months. The talent of eight voices provided a different purity of sound and expression. But the real success was the collaboration of piano and voice, rich and full and seamless, as the year progressed. I just kept thinking how can it get any better?

    But it did. It made me happy. I witnessed what I think Amelia LeClair has always hoped to create. I was sitting in a “salon of the period” listening to a wonderful collaboration of music that would have made Fanny proud.

    Comment by Martha Bancroft — November 24, 2023 at 3:02 pm

  6. Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano music was a revelation and Lois Shapiro played with incredible skill and outstanding sensitivity. The vocal pieces interspersed between the piano pieces paired wonderfully with them and were sung with precision and beauty.

    Comment by Urban Larson — November 27, 2023 at 3:45 pm

  7. Regarding “New England premiere” of Das Jahr, note the following:

    https://necmusic.edu/events/nec-piano-department-fine-balance-piano-music-women-and-men-part-one

    Not only was it performed last year at New England Conservatory, it specifically inspired the structure of NEC’s “Women and Men” piano festival, as noted in the concert listing copy. In general, I would advise against asserting “firsts” around music from more than a century ago.

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — November 27, 2023 at 7:40 pm

  8. Thank you Rob. Duly noted.

    Comment by Dinah K Bodkin — November 28, 2023 at 6:26 pm

  9. Text amended to reflect Rob’s correction.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 28, 2023 at 9:44 pm

  10. Of course when calling something a premiere, what is important is that it draws attention to a work that most people don’t know and will not have heard in a live performance. It’s amazing that even with women like Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn) who are relatively well-known, there are so many important pieces that audiences have yet to have a chance to hear. And with that in mind, tonight on the Harvard campus a concert will include the modern east coast premiere of Amy Beach’s dramatic concert aria, Eilende Wolken, Segler der Lüfte (“Wand’ring Clouds, Sail through the Air”) by Schiller from Maria Stuart). Beach was commissioned to write this work following the success of her Mass op. 5 in 1892; it was premiered 131 years ago to the day. Very exciting! While the piano vocal edition may have been performed, we believe this will be the first east coast performance of our new edition of the full orchestral version. https://engage.gsas.harvard.edu/event/9604909
    Concert also includes music by British women: Ruth Gipps, Doreen Carwithen and Ethel Smyth.
    Liane Curtis, President, Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy http://www.wophil.org and http://www.amybeach.org

    Comment by Liane Curtis, Ph.D — December 3, 2023 at 12:33 pm

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