The Intimate and the Spectacular: An Inspiring Lobgesang from Bramwell Tovey


  Mendelssohn and Brahms: Monica Huisman (soprano), Kristin Hoff (mezzo-soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor), Elektra Women’s Choir (directed by Morna Edmundson), Chor Leoni (directed by Eric Licht), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Chan Centre, Vancouver, BC, 20.2.2015 (GN)

Brahms: Vier Gesange, Op. 17
Mendelssohn: Vespergesang, Op. 121
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 52 “Lobgesang”


The Vancouver Symphony’s big choral concerts often have a particularly alluring appeal, since they involve massive forces and a sense of spectacle. The requiems of Verdi and Brahms, or Beethoven’s 9th, are perennial choices, though Britten’s War Requiem was the major event here so far this season. The problem with the focus on big works is simply that so many fine choral works are never performed at all. This concert broke some new ground by making its first half an intimate traversal of seldom-heard Brahms and Mendelssohn songs for choir with only chamber accompaniment, before unleashing the more spectacular, but still not  commonplace,  Mendelssohn “Hymn of Praise” in the second. Two different worlds in one concert!

I particularly like the way things were executed. For the intimate half, two separate choirs participated in turn, taking up a relatively immediate position on bleachers set no more than half-way back on the concert stage. The Elektra Woman’s Choir began with Brahms’ youthful Op. 17 songs, accompanied by horn and harp, followed by the male choir, Chor Leoni, in Mendelssohn’s Vespergesang, accompanied by two cellos. There was a wonderful serenity over the music-making, both choirs showing evident accomplishment and feeling under the direction of their respective conductors.

I am not certain that the acoustics of the venue mixed that well with the top of the women’s sound profile but, at their best, the Elektra ensemble had a fine blend, producing sharp dynamics and phrasing and a strong response to some of quieter, more contemplative features of Brahms’ writing. The stark statements of the horn (played admirably by VSO principal Oliver de Clercq) were involving, generating something of the same feeling that one finds in Britten’s Serenade. The male choir was also fully engaging in the Mendelssohn, exuding obvious warmth and achieving a remarkable variety of vocal textures. Their singing always had an emotional intensity and depth, the brief solo contributions adding to its dramatic component.

I probably could have reveled in a second half of such intimate singing, but then it was time for Scene Two. The bleachers came down and the two choirs enthusiastically joined each other in the choir loft behind the stage. And this is a high choir loft: over 100 singers literally “in the heavens.” Since the Chan Centre does not usually host large choral concerts with the orchestra, I had not seen this before, nor did I know what it would sound like. The full orchestra then took their place on stage with Maestro Bramwell Tovey and, suddenly, we were more in “spectacle” mode for the Mendelssohn Second Symphony.

This was a very fine performance of this somewhat unconventional symphony-cantata. Just two weeks ago, I had remarked on how well Maestro Tovey had found the tempo giusto to take Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony from start to finish with a consuming flow and majesty. Clearly, the magic has not worn off, since I found the same characteristics here.

Negotiating the striding march themes and endless counterpoint of Mendelssohn’s first movement has never been the easiest task. Some traditional interpreters (Kurt Masur, Christoph von Dohnányi) have tended towards sheer propulsion to achieve musical unity, but here the approach was more deliberate. The key was always to keep the underlying sense of occasion of the work, continually bringing out its warm lyrical glow and heartfelt pastoral feelings alongside its more assertive punctuations. The same natural fluency was also apparent in the two following movements, the Allegretto moving with an unforced lyrical ease, and the Adagio giving the feeling of a pilgrim’s homage. The contribution of the winds was noteworthy.

In the finale, the choir did sound astonishingly full from its lofty heights, and I incidentally noted just how much smoother the orchestra sounded with absorbing bodies behind it. Again, there was very little hurry here, just a gradual buildup of intensity. All the soloists were distinguished, soprano Monica Huisman providing sharp and telling characterization, mezzo Kristin Hoff, a warmth of expression, while tenor Isaiah Bell was quite stunning in his vocal subtlety and strength. Bell’s voice is so pure and full, with such a lovely ring and evenness in his tone production. His renderings of both “Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid…” and “Stricke des Todes” were events in themselves, and added noticeably to the electricity of the proceedings.

There were instances where I felt that the choir and orchestra were perhaps not quite exact or decisive enough but, overall, both performed extremely well. Besides, any small inaccuracies did not really matter when the line of dramatic development was so securely in place. At the end, there was such a compelling bounce to the rhythms and overriding feeling of joy that it was only possible to feel quite suspended by the experience. I doubt that I have seen a much finer or more innovative concert from the VSO for a number of years.

Geoffrey Newman




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