> Choral and Song
Christus & Cantates Chorales
Piau; Getchell, Butter, Slaars; Accentus, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Equilbey. Libretto and translations. Naïve 5265
As conductor, organizer and composer, Felix Mendelssohn played a key role in resuscitating the traditions of J. S. Bach for the nineteenth century. Elijah — once a yearly staple of American musical life, and still popular — and Paulus helped to redefine the oratorio genre in ways that affected British as well as German music for generations. In this very attractive if quiet release, Laurence Equilbey leads her substantive but rather hushed chorus Accentus and the capable Ensemble Orchestral de Paris through a tour of the (mainly) lesser-known fragmentary and short choral cantatas.
The program opens with the brief a cappella "Verleih uns frieden gnädiglich" (Grant peace in our time), a little gem from 1831 that Robert Schumann later compared to a newly discovered Old Master painting. Two three-movement sequences follow from a projected oratorio left unfinished at the composer's death in 1847 and posthumously entitled Christus. In the first, treating on Christ's birth, Sandrine Piau's crystalline soprano limns a recitative; a brief, lovely trio for the Three Kings is nicely sung by American Baroque tenor Robert Getchell and two lower voices, baritone Markus Butter and bass Laurent Staars; and the chorus reiterates the prophecy (from Numbers) of a Star coming out of Jacob. The second sequence depicts the Passion, with Getchell sensitively handling the Evangelist-like recitatives between the choruses' outpourings. The piece's gently despairing final choral number over plucked strings, "Ihr Töchter Zions" (Daughters of Zion), could almost be inserted into Nabucco to preface "Va, pensiero."
Like several works here, "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" (O head covered in blood and wounds) utilizes in reworked and reharmonized from extant Lutheran chorales ( including "A Mighty Fortress") that Bach also incorporated into his works. The Dresden-based Kavalierbariton Butter, a fine singer, brings style and a pleasant, slightly dry sound to the central aria, written by Mendelssohn for Eduard Devrient, the multitalented baritone whom the composer used as Jesus in his revelatory 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion (and brother-in-law of the creatrix of Adriano, Senta and Venus). Rushing strings introduce the comparatively well-known Christmas cantata "Von Himmel Hoch" — with texts by Martin Luther himself — also from 1831. A five-part chorus and timpani mark this score, and there are solos for soprano and baritone. Equilbey's well-tuned choral forces let loose with abandon, but Piau's beautifully focused, straightforward aria "Sei willekomm, du edler Gast!" ("Be welcome, noble guest") marks this pleasing CDs radiant high point.
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