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!