Monday, 7 March 2011

A Feast of German Romantic Music

Exeter Chamber Choir at Crediton Parish Church
Conductor and Pianist, Andrew Daldorph
Cellist, Hilary Boxer; Clarinettist, Chris Gradwell
'The Beare Trio'
An Saturday night (5th March) the 'Beare Trio' led the Exeter Chamber Choir in a 'Feast of German Romantic Music'.  Pianist Andrew Daldorph and 'cellist Hilary Boxer, are familiar to the 'Classical Journey'.  (Links for Hilary and Andrew: Exeter Bach SocietyBaroque SpecialChristmas Oratorio/Sonatas Spirited and Serene, Tango!, It was Wonderful!)  Clarinettist, Chris Gradwell has been heard playing jazz with Andrew in 'Jazz of Life' and 'Le Jazz' on several Phonic FM programmes.  Several familiar musicians also came as singers in the choir - pianist Patrick Taylor, soprano Val Howells, and flautist Tina Guthrie - whose flute quartet 'The Champagne Flutes' we hope to hear on the 'Journey' soon.
Also singing with the ECC on Wednesday:
A well-known soprano from Exeter,
Mediaeval Art Historian
and Performing Arts Librarian, Ann Draisey
Tina's husband Nigel (a bass) opened the proceedings with a few well chosen words and posed the group for an official photo.  (The picture above is just a snapshot.)  The concert was also recorded.  (Listen out for extracts on the 'Classical Journey'.)  Andrew very politely asked everyone to keep their coughing and sneezing 'to a minimum' and leave a little silence before clapping.
Then, rather mysteriously, the choir trooped off-stage and disappeared.  Then they were seen in the distance reconvening at the far end of the quire near the alter.  Presaged by a church bell distantly tolling 7.30pm, Josef Rheinberger's 'Abendlied' ('Evening Hymn') could be heard.  Initially reedy and ethereal at the great distance, the sound swelled with the acoustics of the great building and held the audience's attention.  A very different and lovely sound echoing around that ancient church.
The Beare Trio then took up the more conventional position at the front of the nave, with Andrew's wife Sally in charge of his page turning.  Beethoven's 'Allegro con Brio' (from Trio No 4 in B flat, Opus 11) was gentle and developed gradually, mirroring the 'Abendlied'.  Andrew demonstrated his very relaxed and fluid piano technique, while Hilary and Chris were the epitome of light and gentle touch on their respective instruments.  The choir then sang unaccompanied.  From Anton Bruckner they performed 'Locus Iste' and 'Ave Maria', and later 'Christus Factus Est' and Os Justi'.  'Locus Iste' ('This Place . . . was made by God') was full of bass portent with every word crystal clear - to those who can understand Latin - and the singers beaming with pleasure.  'Ave Maria' ('Hail Mary') displayed the power and clarity of the higher voices and was full of extreme dynamics, even in the final 'amen' which swelled to a crescendo before fading away.  'Chrustus Factus Est' ('Christ was made . . . obedient for us - even unto death') was tangibly reverent and grateful in tone.  in the line 'Usque ad mortem' ('even unto death') 'mortem' was delivered in the extreme bass with perfect pitch.  The low hum and rumble of the bass harmonies swelled and cut short with absolute precision.  At the conclusion of the final repeat of the line 'dedit illi nomen, quod est super omne nomen' ('a name was given to him, which is above every name') the final 'n' was drawn out exquisitely.  'Os Justi' ('A righteous mouth . . . will meditate wisdom') was primed by Andrew with a single piano note before racing to celestial heights.  'Lex Dei' ('God's Law') was pronounced with almost jocular exultation leading to the final 'Hallelujah' ('Praise God') which was contrastingly quiet and restrained.
Clarinettist Chris Gradwell
In the midst of the Bruckner recital came two very different pieces by Johannes Brahms.  The Adagio from Brahms' Clarinet Trio (for clarinet, 'cello and piano in A minor, Opus 114) was gentle and refined with every note on the 'cello and clarinet controlled and combined to perfection.  Hilary's pizzicato section soft against the sweet tone of Chris's clarinet.  Despite the frosty coldness of the eveining, which must have been affecting them, both played with a warmth that gave the impression of a balmy summer afternoon - amazing.  This piece can be played with strings only - viola instead of clarinet - but it is essentially a clarinet piece (commissioned for clarinettist Richard Mühlfield of the Meiningen Court Orchestra) and Chris demonstrated its full potential in this gorgeous performance.  (We shouldn't forget Andrew, who played as sweetly as ever.)
Brahms' 'German' Requiem, by contrast, is a mighty composition in seven movements composed in the aftermath of Robert Schumann's premature death and the even more adjacent death of Brahm's mother.  'Classical Journey' listeners will recall hearing the fourth movement, 'Wie liebrich sind deine Wohnungen' ('How rich are your Tabernacles'), in a recorded performance by the Plymouth Symphony Orchestra and Choir, played out on Tuesday's programme.  Sturday's version was something different, but quite the equal of the Plymouth performance.  In the quiet as the choir assembled that distant church bell rang out again - 8pm.  Only half an hour had passed!  Andrew caught the mood by picking out the peal of bells lightly on the piano.  But the piece that followed was anything but light-hearted.  The theme was rousing and intense, but instead of the usual orchestral accompaniment the singing was echoed and augmented by the individual instruments of the trio, clarinet and 'cello perfectly complementing the clearly enunciated words (in German this time, of course).  Andrew conducted the choir and played the piano, which he later claimed made his job easier - less notes to play.  Debatable.  As the instruments led into the repeat Andrew placed his finger to his lips - 'Quietly'.  From a soft start the voices built again but then faded to leave a sweet clarinet melody and the trio finished the piece in delicate style.  Sweet.  Pretty.
Finally the Trio played the piece that had caught my attention on Tuesday.  Concert Piece No 1 by Felix Mendelssohn (in F major Opus 113).  Originally scored for clarinet, basset horn and orchestra, this was a perfect little piece for the trio.  A snappy horn line, played on the 'cello, interjects in the powerful melody of the clarinet.  The piano, taking the place of the full orchestra, repeatedly introduced the melody, which was taken up by the 'cello and clarinet in turn.  The dance theme that developed involved lovely 'cello and lively clarinet in equal measure and was repeated over and over - glorious.  This is an early work for Mendelssohn composed in 1832 when he was only 23 years old.  (Sadly he died when he was only 38, but that's another story)  Mendelssohn himself played piano at the première and the clarinet part was specifically written for and performed by the great virtuoso Heinrich Baermann.  Heinrich's son Carl played the basset horn.  (It was Carl who eventually orchestrated Mendelssohn's second 'Concert Piece' - Mendelssohn didn't live long enough to get round to it.)  The youth and vigour of the orginal (even Baermann senior had been only 52 at the time) were recreated magnificently by the more contemporary 'Beare Trio'.
After the interval the choir sang us psalms.  First was Psalm 43, 'Richte mich, Gott' ('Judge me, O God') - Mendelssohn again (Opus 78 No 2).  This was in very Germanic style with the choir rearranged with the men on the left and women on the right.  Slow and ponderous, they still managed to make it happy and exultant - a fabulous effect.  For Schubert's setting of Psalm 23 'The Lord is my Shepherd' the men left the stage and the women sang without tenor and bass accompaniment - in English this time.  The Trio provided the accompaniment for a light and delicate effect.  A perfect little piece.
The young Mendelssohn was brought back with 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich' ('Mercifully grant us peace').  Ironically this setting of Martin Luther's prayer was inspired by a visit to the Vatican in 1931 - and by Mendelssohn's illustrious predecessor and hero, Johann Sebastian Bach.  The choir were accompanied by the piano.  Andrew opened with a lovely tone and touch and the gentle singing of the prayer was held under wonderfully.
Max Bruch's 'Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano' (Opus 83) were written for his son Max Felix, whose playing at the première was compared to Richard Mühlfield's playing of Brahms' Clarinet Trio (see above).  To show off Chris's clarinet playing, the Trio selected three of the pieces.  Number Seven in B major  was jolly with a lively interaction between the players and a humorous little phrase at the end.  By contrast Number Five in F minor was haunting and melancholy with the 'cello part leading into a distinctly 'Mediterranean' sounding melody.  As Andrew's part became more florid the other instruments kept up gamely before relenting to a more serious finish.  Number Four in D Minor was anything but melancholy.  Andrew had to count the others in for a vigorous piece played at break-neck speed.  The playing became increasingly manic before stopping abruptly at the end.  Bruch was clearly not only testing his son's clarinet playing with these pieces.  The other players have plenty to think about as well.
Following from the distant 'Abendlied' at the start of the concert the choir sang three of Joseph Rheinberger's motets at normal range, to great effect.  Opus 40 No 1, 'Ich liebe, weil erhöret der Herr' (I love that the Lord hears my prayer' - Psalm 116) has a downward lilt suggesting descent to the underworld, matching the words ' . . . the pains of hell gained hold upon me', and leading to a soft sweet ending.  The Catholic prayer for the dead 'Selig sind die Toten' ('Blessed are the departed' - Revelations, 14:13) was suitably respectful but also reflecting the relatively happy prospect of not having to work when we are dead. Opus 69 No 2, 'Dein sind die Himmel' ('The Heavens are yours' - Psalm 89) rejoiced in everything good in the world - with lovely harmonies.  Three fantastic little pieces.
As a last offering by the Trio the choir were accompanied in Brahms' Opus 30 the 'Geistliches Lied' ('Sacred Song'), 'Laß dich nur nichts nicht dauern mit Trauern' ('Let nothing at all compel you to be consumed with grief') - words by Paul Fleming.  The Trio opened with a wealth of 'cello from Hilary - beautiful.  Once again Andrew conducted with one hand, reducing the piano part by half in parts.  The very deepest 'cello notes made this a very lovely and moving piece.

'Stay with us!'

Supper at Emmaus

Michelangelo Caravaggio 1601
As the audience prepared to brave the dark and frosty night outside, the choir finished as perfectly as they had begun, with the reprise of Joseph Rheinberger's 'Abendlied'.  As a nice touch for this blog, this is from the end of the Luke Gospel.  On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas meets Jesus, who he thought had been executed.  Cleopas exhorts Jesus to stay with him and his companions:

'Bleib' bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, und der Tag hat sich geneiget.'

'Remain with us for it will be evening and the day has drawn to a close.'


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