A delightful and enlightening concert in Berlin of music by Mendelssohn, Hensel and Bach

GermanyGermany Mendelssohn, Hensel, and Bach: Anna Prohaska (soprano), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Ludwig Mittelhammer (bass), RIAS Chamber Choir, Kammerakademie Potsdam / Justin Doyle (conductor). Kammermusiksaal Berlin, 14.3.2024. (MB)

RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Mendelssohn – Psalm 115, ‘Nicht unserm Namen, Herr’, MWV A 9; Ave Maria, Op.23 No.2, MWV B 19; Hör mein Bitten, MWV B 49; Psalm 114, ‘Da Israel aus Ägypten zog,’ Op.51

Fanny Hensel – Hiob

Bach – Cantata, ‘Die Elenden sollen essen’, BWV 75: Sinfonia to the second part

A delightful and enlightening concert from the RIAS Chamber Choir, Kammerakademie Potsdam, Justin Doyle, and an excellent trio of vocal soloists: focusing on Felix Mendelssohn, but also including a cantata by his sister Fanny Hensel and a sinfonia by the family’s musical house god, Johann Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn’s setting of verses from the 115th Psalm was the first of five such large-scale settings he made for soloists, chorus, and orchestra between 1829 and 1844. It revealed almost equally strong influence from Bach and Handel, the latter in particular occasionally Mozartified. Here, as throughout, the RIAS Chamber Choir proved admirable in every respect: warm, clear, faultless in pitch and diction. The second of its three movements, a duet with chorus, whilst not un-Handelian in its way of duetting, was less obviously ‘Baroque’ on the surface. Anna Prohaska and Benjamin Bruns offered a mellifluous performance, bassoons and more generally orchestral wind pleasingly audible. The ensuing bass arioso was, similarly, beautifully taken by Ludwig Mittelhammer, with a closing chorus, its opening a cappella, confirming all preceding choral and orchestral virtues.

Hensel’s 1831 cantata Hiob (‘Job’) sets three pairs of verses from the Book of Job. Three trumpets, timpani, and an excellent mezzo-soprano from the choir joined the orchestra and soloists on stage. Here, especially in the opening chorus, Bach’s influence was still stronger: in woodwind writing, figuration, harmony, chromatic lines, and more. It is not pastiche: there were pleasing instances to be heard of nineteenth-century colour and, again, Mozartian mediation (perhaps, in the final chorus, the Haydn of The Creation too). But Hensel had certainly learned her Bachian lessons well, as well indeed as her brother. The central arioso, ‘Warum verbirgest du dein Anlitz’ employs all four soloists, the mezzo’s opening question responded to by the other three, followed by a brief reprise of the former. A third, choral movement once again revealed highly accomplished harmony and counterpoint, the assembled forces under Doyle’s wise leadership performing this – and the rest – with relish and understanding.

Mendelssohn’s responsorial Ave Maria for tenor, chorus, and orchestra (here two clarinets, two bassoons, three cellos, and two double basses) from 1827 seems to me less inspired. I am not sure Marian devotion was really his thing, though this is of course also a very early work (if later than the A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and the Octet). Its central, choral section struck me as more interesting, nimble cello pizzicato offering an uncanny presentiment of the second movement processional from the Italian Symphony. It was, in any case, interesting to hear the piece.

In the second half, we were in different territory altogether, with far more characteristic Mendelssohn. In the 1844 Hör mein Bitten (or ‘Hear my Prayer’, as most English-speaking listeners will know it), Prohaska brought a welcome sense of drama: not ‘operatic’, but certainly drawing on her rich and varied operatic experience. There were some truly magical passages, not least her sinuous duet with clarinet (partly set against cello pizzicato). With a larger choir and orchestra than one generally hears, as well as increasingly dramatic delivery – overall conception well-shaped indeed – this was worlds away from English cathedral music; it certainly evinced more biting consonants and accompanying verbal meaning. Both have their place, of course, but, closer to a miniature Lobgesang and even to Wagner, here was a splendidly Romantic Mendelssohn, the composer of Elijah and St Paul.

The Sinfonia to the second part of Bach’s Cantata ‘Die Elenden sollen essen’ received what struck me as a near-ideal performance: warm, cultivated, and welcoming, my only regret was that that was all we heard of the piece. No matter: in Mendelssohn’s 1839 setting of verses from the 114th Psalm, we had a perfect crown to the concert, surveying in each of its four stanzas a different aspect to the composer’s craft. The integration of Handelian antecedents and the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the second proved a joy, but then so did the simpler questioning homophony of the third, and the glorious jubilation (and struggles) of the fourth. ‘Da Israel aus Ägypten zog’, was always likely to bring echoes of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, but Bach remained as strong a guide. Doyle once again led a fine performance, colourful and directed, in which every word as well as every note told.

Mark Berry

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