The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra plus soloists turn in a “glorious” performance of the rarely performed choral symphony “Hymn of Praise” by Felix Mendelssohn. | May 6, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will bring us that giant among symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth. We now take that work so for granted as a musical summit by itself that we lose sight of its enormous impact on composers of the rest of the 19th century.

The introduction of solo and choral voices into an orchestral symphony score was radical, and inspired many responses. One was the efforts of Hector Berlioz to infuse the elements of opera into a symphonically structured work, resulting in that masterpiece, his “dramatic symphony” Romeo et Juliette. Richard Wagner, by contrast, built an entire career of casting operas in symphonic terms. The culmination of the “choral symphony” came with three of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler (Nos. 2, 3 and 8).

But an earlier response was brought to us last Saturday night by the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (below). This was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, known as the Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” It was composed in 1840, a mere 16 years after Beethoven’s Ninth was premiered.

Choral Union and UW Symphony Lobgesang

Mendelssohn (below) did not simplistically imitate the prototype, but adapted its idea to his own purposes. In place of three elaborate and individual movements, the work’s No. 1, called “sinfonia,” is a set of three successive orchestral sections that flow with limited breaks one after the other, for a total of 15-20 minutes. Then follows a series of nine numbers constituting a cantata for soloists and chorus, running close to 60 minutes.

mendelssohn_300

It sets either Scriptural or devotional texts pertaining to faith in and celebration of the Almighty, with thematic references made to material in the preliminary “sinfonia.” This “choral finale” alone is in the line of sacred choral works, many on Psalm texts, that the composer wrote recurrently.

This cantata may lack the etherial daring of Beethoven’s choral finale, but it is far more idiomatically vocal and choral than what late Beethoven had come to. With its inclusion of Lutheran chorale elements and fugal counterpoint, it is in a class with Mendelssohn’s glorious oratorio Elijah. (Below is a photo of the performance by Margaret Barker.)

Lobgesang Margaret Barker

Because of the extra-orchestral resources the work calls for, it is not often performed, so that it has not become as familiar, and therefore as well-loved, as the composer’s popular Symphonies 3, 4, and 5, the so-called “Scottish,” “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies. Some might find No. 2 less than top-drawer Mendelssohn, but it is certainly high-quality Mendelssohn, and readily rewards the hearing. (You can hear an excerpt featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This was the sole work on this Choral Union program. With the absence of regular conductor Beverly Taylor, who is on sabbatical this semester, the podium was assumed by the splendid James Smith (below), who seemed altogether comfortable drawing magnificent sounds from the large chorus, while working his usual wonders with his student orchestra.

Version 3

There are parts for three soloists. The main soprano was Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top, left), whose wide vibrato and squally high range represented for me the one disappointment of this performance. The reliable Mimmi Fulmer (below top, center) was drawn in only for a two-soprano duet: I wish she had been given the top assignment. Thomas Leighton (below bottom) is not the most lyrical of tenors, but he conveyed honestly the spiritual searching of his solos.

Mimmi Fulmer Lobgesang

Thomas Leighton Lobgesang

Here, then, was the Choral Union at its best. It offered stirring choral singing, while giving us an opportunity to experience an unfairly neglected but wonderful score.

 

 

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