WASHINGTON, October 10, 2014 – Music of Poulenc, Bach and Mendelssohn on the same program? Sounds a bit eclectic, particularly if it’s scheduled for a major orchestra’s regular season opening concert. Nonetheless, that’s how the NSO chose to open its 2014-2015 regular season concert series last weekend at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall—with spectacular results.
Featuring guest conductor Matthew Hall and guest organist Paul Jacobs, the NSO’s program opened with Francis Poulenc’s highly original Concerto in G-minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani, followed by J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A-minor for solo organ, with Mr. Jacobs returning as soloist.
The concert’s lengthy second half was filled out with a muscular performance by the NSO of Felix Mendelssohn’s rarely heard Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 52, subtitled “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”). They were joined in the final movement by the Washington Chorus, sopranos Tamara Wilson and Twyla Robinson and tenor Paul Appleby.
The Poulenc Organ Concerto
Francis Poulenc is one of those unusual composers whose output is sometimes difficult to define. A member in good standing of the French cadre of composers known as “Les Six,” he and his fellow members distinguished themselves from impressionists like Debussy and Ravel by striking out in new, often antic directions, with sometimes irreverent compositions taking I’ve sometimes referred to as “Deco Music.”
Poulenc was in many ways the most intriguing composer in this group, with many of his highly unusual compositions firmly establishing themselves in the repertoire since his death in 1963, including his 1956-57 opera “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” which will be performed by the Washington National Opera this season.
One of Poulenc’s most memorable and durable compositions, however, has been his highly individualistic “Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G-minor.” Composed in 1938 and premiered in its final form in 1941, it marked his philosophical and personal turn from Deco Music rebel back to his Catholic roots in the sense that the concerto takes a more serious turn than anything in his previous musical output.
At the time of the organ concerto’s composition, Poulenc had become rightly alarmed at the rise of Hitler, which, coincidentally or not, converged with personal setbacks to put the composer in a somber and contemplative mood, profoundly affecting the latter part of his compositional career.
Although constructed as a single, continuous movement, Poulenc’s organ concerto is divided into seven episodes that roughly follow the three movements of a standard concerto in pattern unified by a notable minor-key motif that reappears throughout the work in various forms.
Opening with a brief, massively dissonant, minor key prelude on the solo organ, which is ominously supported by the rhythmic, funereal backdrop of the timpani, the concerto quickly moves into alternating episodes interspersing surprising splashes of playful color with gloomy riffs on that original, dark statement. It’s as if the composer is taking a brief, longing look back on his almost Dadaist former self before the darkness of the coming catastrophe engulfs the music once again.
The concerto is an intriguing grab bag of styles, tossing elements of Bach’s preludes into the hopper along with irreverent snatches of French café music fare before burying them both beneath overwhelming organ outbursts that look ahead to musical theater works like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd.”
The orchestration of the concerto is inspired as well. The organ is the star of the show, of course. Yet, accompanied, as it is, only by a string orchestra, the organ also functions as the remaining instrumental choirs, as the timpanist supplies rhythmic support at key intervals.
Not an accomplished organist himself, Poulenc happily enlisted the help of master organist Maurice Duruflé, who worked with the composer to get the registration—the combinations of sounds required to set appropriate sounds and moods for the instrument—just right. It was a good move on the part of Poulenc. The concerto’s final registration choices achieve an uncommon perfection, maximizing this impressive work’s emotional impact in the process.
The concerto is a tricky work for the soloist, however. Portions of each movement are deceptively simple, while others challenge the limits of a virtuoso to reproduce the work’s ever-morphing, ever-changing moods as they shift rapidly from near bombast to deeply-affecting moments of quiet, quasi-religious introspection.
Happily, Paul Jacobs, arguably the Royal Instrument’s latest rising star, was the featured soloist for these season opening performances. Along with the NSO strings and principal timpanist Jauvon Gilliam, Mr. Jacobs gave what might arguably be regarded as a definitive performance of this concerto.
Having actually memorized the concerto—no easy task for a substantial organ work—Mr. Jacobs was able to make this performance entirely his own, adding amazing nuances to crisp technique to take the audience on a remarkable, contemporary musical journey that traveled forward and back through history and time.
We should note at this point that the last time we heard this work was a number of years ago in a performance held in DC’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Sadly, we can’t remember whether the performance was good or bad, as the only thing we do recall is the muddiness of the sound as it reverberated throughout the Shrine’s vast interior.
Clearly, however, this is a concerto that needs to be performed in a symphony hall or perhaps in a space like Massachusetts’ unique Methuen Hall, built to house its magnificent organ. The tighter, cleaner space of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall concentrated the effect of the concerto as a large cathedral space never could, something brought out in this performance.
In addition, both the concerto as well as the remaining works on the program, offered a wonderful opportunity to relish the brilliant, glorious, French Romantic sound of the Concert Hall’s still new Rubenstein Family Organ, an instrument that marks a game-change when compared to its utilitarian but unfortunate predecessor.
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in A minor
Happily, the next work on this program was Mr. Jacobs’ solo performance of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. As if his performance of Poulenc’s concerto weren’t brilliant enough, Mr. Jacobs literally pulled out all the stops on the Bach Prelude and Fugue, from the opening notes of its virtually improvisatory beginning, through its difficult fugue to its thunderous finale.
This was sweeping, breathtakingly clean and precise sound, performed on an organ whose quality the old master could only have dreamed of during his lifetime by a soloist who’d mapped out every move and effect well beforehand.
The audience gave Mr. Jacobs lengthy, boisterous and well-deserved ovations at the conclusion of each of these works, and this reviewer would have to enthusiastically concur with their judgment.
Mendelssohn’s rarely-heard Symphony No. 2
As if this program weren’t already interesting enough, the second half of this fairly lengthy evening was devoted to a Mendelssohn symphony that most classical aficionados—including this reviewing—likely have never heard in a live performance, namely Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 52.
This symphony a huge, major statement by a composer who, throughout most of this reviewer’s younger days was regarded by many as a composer of second rank, though quite high in that secondary tier. One could write a dissertation on this, but it’s difficult not to imagine that some of the disrespect accorded this unusual composer wasn’t due to latent anti-Semitism as well as the later suppression of Jewish composers and their music during the Nazi regime.
Mendelssohn was indeed a Romantic composer of the first rank, but a fastidious one. He had great reverence for musical structure and form which, not surprisingly, compelled him to take a major part in the revival of the works of Bach, an obsession that was aided and abetted by the Mendelssohn family’s conversion to Christianity.
The composer’s ultimate religiosity is open to debate. Yet his embrace of Christian music, hymns, and the cantata format give him a unique and unusual place in the pantheon of 19th century Romantic composers.
Which gets us back to the Second Symphony. Quite popular in its own day and for quite some time thereafter, it’s completely different from his final three symphonies, which are still regularly performed today. With its lengthy, choral finale, it is, in a way, Mendelssohn’s own response to Beethoven’s Ninth, something for which some later music scholars derided him.
Yet its ambitious choral format also places the Second Symphony well within the loosening symphonic tradition that produced works as disparate as Berlioz’ operatic “Romeo and Juliette” symphony and Liszt’s “Faust Symphony,” both of which employed choral elements as well.
But Mendelssohn is Mendelssohn. His “choral symphony” was conceived of as a dramatic whole, ultimately centering on biblical elements as a way of celebrating—as it does—the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable print, a discovery that resulted, of course, in a much wider dissemination of the Holy Bible.
The brass fanfare that opens the work’s first movement is a motif that carries throughout the symphony, hinted at here and there but reappearing triumphantly in the finale, which celebrates the light of God and, arguably, the light that Gutenberg brought to the Word of God.
While the symphony’s dramatic and generally energetic initial three movements contain a great many things to admire, they ultimately serve as the prelude to its dominant choral finale. Fully 70-minutes in length, not unlike some of Mahler’s later symphonic finales, the Second Symphony’s final movement is virtually a standalone cantata, clearly Mendelssohn’s homage to Bach as well as to Beethoven.
Structured like the true cantata it is, the movement employs biblical and poetic texts, bracketing a central plea to God to shine light on the darkness of sinful men in order to bring salvation to mankind. Beginning in triumph, the movement quickly descends to the depths of hell, only to rise once again in victory over the powers of darkness, punctuated throughout with quotations from two key hymns, “A Mighty Fortress,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.”
The NSO performed crisply and enthusiastically under Mr. Halls’ baton. Likewise, the well prepared Washington Chorus, although the latter’s diction was sometimes indistinct.
Diction was not a problem, however, for the evening’s guest soloists. Soprano Tamara Wilson was clear and forthright as the major soloist in the finale, supported during one of this movement’s central portions (“Ich harrete des Herrn,” or “I waited for the Lord.”) by soprano Twyla Robinson’s somewhat darker voice.
The finale’s recitatives were generally delivered by tenor Paul Appleby, whose clarion voice was surprising in its authority and intensity.
Adding a power boost to the finale was the underlying role of the Rubenstein organ, this time piloted by the NSO’s regular organist William O’Neill.
Orchestra, chorus, organ and soloists all combined to bring a magnificent end to a magnificent season opening concert by the NSO. After such a great start, we can’t help looking forward to the rest of the season. And, perhaps next season, to a return of organist Paul Jacobs, who could become a real Kennedy Center favorite.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)