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Music review: Mendelssohn by Collegium Warwick

01 March 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears Mendelssohn’s last venture into oratorio


AMONG Felix Mendelssohn’s substantial works, his two sacred oratorios Elijah and the earlier St Paul stand out. At the time of his early death, soon after the première of Elijah, he had embarked, in effect, on a Passion oratorio. The title Christus (also used by Liszt) was given to it by his brother Paul, to whom we owe the amassing of such fragments as can be performed.

Passages from Christus (Op. 97) are familiar and periodically sung, but it is rare to light upon an all-through performance. Congratulations, then, to Collegium Warwick, a choral society now under a new music director, Oliver Hancock, for programming these as a unity at St Mary’s, Warwick, and providing an opportunity to sense where this potentially marvellous score might have led.

The soprano (Katie Trethewey) supplied such recitatives as we have: the first section (of three) — “When Jesus our Lord was born in Bethlehem” — evokes the nativity: the three Wise Men enter. The wonderfully floated harmony for men’s voices, “Say, where is He born, the King of Judaea?” and “There shall a star from Jacob come forth”, both come from Matthew 2. The latter is cast in a brighter key, and its ascending sequences radiate optimism. An angry and resentful choir outburst (from Psalm 2) gives way to the familiar Lutheran chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.

Christus throughout is top-drawer Mendelssohn: he was stylistically at his peak, and his choral writing is as inspired as any that came before. For the trial before Pilate, the most extended passage that we have, mostly using Luke 23, his assured and intense counterpoint illustrates the mastery that he acquired partly from his study of Bach. “He stirreth up the Jews” is a challenging tour de force that the Warwick forces managed especially well. Five sections deliver this vitriol, including the inevitable turbae (“Crucify him!”), Mendelssohn transiting from Luke to John 19 part-way. “We have a sacred law”, men’s and women’s voices cascading over one another, is typical.

Mendelssohn, like Elgar, has a gift for expanding a short passage of text into a full-blooded movement. The last section of choral invention, preceding a freshly reworded (and reharmonised) Bachian chorale, is particularly striking in this respect: at “Daughters of Zion, weep for yourselves, and your children,” three lines are protracted into a beautifully varied sequence that here enabled the individual choir lines to shine out, abetted by expressive flutes in the organ accompaniment. Playing was Adrian Moore, who, with similar dexterity and inventive registration, also performed Mendelssohn’s third Organ Sonata.

The inclusion in this concert of Mendelsson’s “Hear My Prayer” could have seemed corny, were it not for the boy treble soloist, Tommy Perry, a current St Mary’s chorister. Although he gazed fixedly down at his copy throughout, his voice and mature diction came through as clear as a bell, and the vowels as well as the consonants were lucid and finessed. He tended to swoop up to the repeated top Gs (“I have no guide”) as if he was appending a kind of grace note; but when he got there, each was impeccably placed.

Collegium Warwick showed its mettle again and even more in the second half, which was devoted to Purcell. The stars here were the paired countertenors Mark Williams and James Parsons, both former choristers of St Mary’s, in Come, ye Sons of Art, Purcell’s final birthday ode for Queen Mary II; and even more so, Parsons’s solo aria “Strike the viol”, a model of assured, beautifully expressive delivery.

SOON after their Alec Roth première (Arts, 15 February), the choir Ex Cathedra gave a rare performance at Birmingham Town Hall of Purcell’s semi-opera The Indian Queen (1695), written the year the composer died. India here meant Central America; the libretto, partly by Dryden, poignantly anticipates the Spanish conquest.

Notable was the supremely polished instrumental playing: oboes, recorder, cello, and percussion were all allotted distinctive individual parts. More striking still was the drummer and percussionist Simone Rebello. She emerged triumphant in a series of Baroque choral pieces by Central and South American composers, into which the conductor, Jeffrey Skidmore, has made extensive researches in the music libraries of Mexico and Bolivia.

Amid some helter-skelter bull-fight (or bull-run) music, and pieces set in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, several works by Juan de Araujo, maestro de capilla at La Plata (now Sucre) Cathedral, in modern Bolivia (close to the Chapel of the Virgin of Guadeloupe), stood out.

Araujo’s Dixit Dominus is brilliantly lithe and confident, offset by some delicate plainsong. En el muy gran Padre Ignacio (“The sun rises on our great Father Ignatius”) features a duet for sopranos, which was scintillatingly sung. A lullaby with organ, harp, and archlute was pure enchantment.

Skidmore distributed the solos admirably around the singers. Each without exception was top-quality. That they blended so perfectly within the choir was another source of satisfaction.

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