Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Great Bach-Mendelssohn Smackdown

Since this year marks the 200th birthday of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, it seems only fitting to give him a chance to compete head to head with the great master – the heavyweight world champion, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert last Thursday evening, part of a festival called “pipeworks”, juxtaposed Mendelssohn organ and choral pieces with Bach organ and choral pieces. One is supposed to hear how heavily Bach influenced Mendelssohn, but I like to think of it as a competition where we have given the challenger a chance to win the championship belt.

The competition concert started with a Bach organ Prelude and Fugue (C major, BWV 545). While this is a great piece, the delivery left something to be desired. The pipes of the organ that were used in this performance sounded a bit too much like a Nintendo Game-Boy. So while this should have been spectacular, instead it left just enough room for the Mendelssohn fans to think that Bach could be defeated that evening. But before getting too cocky, these fans were smacked down by Bach’s amazing Double Chorus "Komm, Jesu komm” (BWV 229) which was excellently performed and set an extremely high bar for the challenger to try to match. (Here's a pretty good recording from the 90's).

The next section of the evening was perhaps the most interesting: six short organ pieces by Bach (BWV 599,606,614,618,621,630) from the Orgelbuchlein alternately interspersed with the six "Spruche” (Op 79) by Mendelssohn for choir. While the Mendelssohn choir pieces were also excellent, these organ pieces are masterworks and are more varied and modern than you might expect from Bach. The organist did not repeat the mistakes of the Prelude and Fugue and generally gave an excellent showing. The final BWV 630 was in classic Bach style and was perfectly performed. (Here is one you tube and another of the piece)

At the two thirds mark, Bach still held a strong lead. But the closing innings would belong to Mendelssohn.

The final part of the program gave the challenger his chance to shine: A performance of his Double Chorus Psalm 2 ``Warum toben die Heiden,” followed by his organ sonata in C minor (Op 65 number 2). While these are both very nice, they were still clearly outshone by the earlier Bach. When the competition concert was over, Bach still remained the champion, but it was a solid and respectable effort from Mendelssohn.

My colleague here at Maynooth, Joost Slingerland, and his wife Theresa, both sing with the Mornington singers who performed the choral part of this event. Kudos to them, the entire choir, and the organists. And Kudos to Mendelsson and Bach!

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