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Media Reviews

Rare Performance Hits the High Notes

KEN WINTERS
Globe and Mail Update

May 13, 2007 at 2:57 PM EDT

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir devoted the last concert of its current season to the music of Mendelssohn and Brahms. And while it was good to hear Mendelssohn's only choral symphony — the Lobgesang ( Hymn of Praise) — and, before intermission, Brahms's three "other" choral pieces with orchestra (i.e. other than the German Requiem) it might have been an easier ride, on a hot night in a close church, if the program had allowed for the season and let in a little air, musically as well as actually.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, The Festival Orchestra
Noel Edison, conductor
At Yorkminster Park Baptist Church
In Toronto on Friday

The three Brahms we heard — Nanie ( Song of Lamentation), Schicksalied ( Song of Destiny) and Alto Rhapsody — are full of inner beauties of the kind that reward close and patient scrutiny, but none is what you'd call a toe-tapper and, of the three, only the Rhapsody has a strong profile.

The other two, though nearly always performed together, do little to set each other off, in terms of contrast, variety, or rhythmic excitement. I kept thinking that Brahms's lovely Four Songs, Op.17, for women's voices, two horns and harp, could have eased the atmosphere perfectly between Nanie or Schicksalied (not both) and the Rhapsody. They would also have given the women's voices of the choir equal opportunity to shine with the men's, which have the choral pages of the Rhapsody to themselves. As it was, a kind of "Brahms density" detracted from some quite beautiful performances. The choir is luxuriously fine to hear, clean in pitch, gorgeous in blend, a great credit to its conductor, Noel Edison.

When mezzo-soprano Susan Platts joined the male voices and the orchestra for the Rhapsody, we had a performance of real distinction. Edison shaped it with a sure and subtle hand, and Platts sang with impeccable musicality and a welcome awareness of Goethe's poem Harzreise im Winter ( Winter journey in the Hartz Mountains) which forms its text. Platts's voice is luscious, steady and beautifully focused, and when she does not allow herself to concentrate only on the purely vocal aspect — the tone making — of what she is singing, she can be an artist to match her voice. On this occasion, she was.

Mendelssohn's Lobgesang, which came after the intermission, was the second of that composer's five mature symphonies to be published, but the fourth to be composed, so we always think it should be one of his strongest. In fact, it is his weakest. Of its first three, purely orchestral, movements, neither the first nor the third is up to his usual standard. Only the second — a gracious and surprising chorale-fantasia — carries his stamp, and it is the fourth, final, choral movement which provides the main reason for its infrequent revivals.

We know from Noel Edison's sure grasp of the oratorio Elijah that he is a Mendelssohn conductor to be reckoned with. And, in fact, he did a fine job with the Lobgesang on Friday. He was not able to make a fresh case for the first and third movements, but the second and fourth blossomed handsomely under his touch.

The fourth is a full-scale cantata, with solos, duets and choruses. Soprano Leslie Fagan and the excellent lyric tenor Lawrence Wiliford were the principal soloists with the most to do, but Eunsil Choi, a young soprano from the choir, was fresh and appealing as second soprano to Fagan's first in the famous duet I waited for the Lord. The high point of the movement, though, was the soprano solo (Fagan) with chorus, "The night has departed" and the perfectly timed chorale "Now thank we all our God" appended to it, and the magnificent chorale-fantasia growing out of that. Here, conductor, soloist, choir and orchestra were in perfect accord, and the musical effect was very splendid.

Reason enough to be glad to have heard this infrequently performed work.

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