by Sam Juliano
Felix Mendelssohn’s Paulus, first performed in 1836, is the first of the composer’s two oratorios, and the more popular during his lifetime. The later work Elijah has since eclipsed Paulus in popularity by some distance, but Paulus remains a major intrigue for choral groups and conductors looking to further scrutinize the work of one of music’s greatest melodists. Indeed, musicologists periodically make a spirited case for it, arguing that it was central to the revival of the German oratorio tradition in the early 19th century. There can be little doubt that Paulus is a kind of outgrowth of the composer’s celebrated 1829 revival of J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin. The opening of the oratorio is modeled on Bach with a preponderance of chorales, fugues, and inflamed crowd scenes. Mendelssohn’s indebtedness and reverence for Bach (and for Handel) manifests itself in the recitatives and in the contrapuntal rigor of some of the choruses. The first half, comprising 22 sections and dealing with Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity is the more dramatic -it has been suggested that Mendelssohn’s decision to employ a four-part women’s choir to voice the words of Jesus was controversial – but it is still highly effective. The second half deals mainly with Paul’s ministry in a general sense, opting to leave out the more dramatic narratives from the book of Acts that could have transformed the work into something far more compelling.
Still, if “Paulus” is never as inspiring and consistent as “Elijah” it is still genuinely powerful and moving at junctures. The Choral Art Society of New Jersey, a distinguished ensemble entering their fiftieth year of operation, have followed up their own staging and orchestration of “Elijah” from a few years ago with a performance of “Paulus” at the beautiful Presbyterian Church in Westfield on a blustery Saturday evening, January 21st, under the baton of CAS musical director James S. Little, who is serving his fourteenth and final year in that capacity.
In a performance that ravished the large throng in the long cathedral-like structure with a three-quarters balcony and not a bad seat in the house, both the reliable CAS orchestra and chorus completed a quartet of impressive soloists, led by the electrifying Andrew Martens, the bass baritone, whose Wagnerian manipulations of dynamics and line shape lent the portraying of St. Paul as vocally arresting as anything else in the performance. Martens, who sung in a Summerscape Festival production of Shostokovich’s The Nose, sung the role of Ramphis in Verdi’s Aida at Carnegie Hall, has enjoyed a long association with the Hudson Opera Theatre, singing major roles in works by Puccini, Donizetti and Tchaikovsky among others. David Kellett, a distinguished lyric tenor, has sung at the Charles Ives Center for the Arts with the Long Island Jewish Festival, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and at Lincoln Center during the ‘Joseph Papp Shakespeare Festival’ delivered a performance of expressive verisimilitude, doing his finest work in the section on St. Stephen in the work’s first stanzas. The Soprano Ellen Goff Entriken, who has sung at Lincoln Center and Avery Fisher Hall, was warm and supple, yet dark in the passages that demanded it (she made a lovely show out of the celebrated “Jerusalem” aria) and the alto mezzo-soprano Angelika Nair infused her role with aching beauty and a mesmerizing focus, leaving the audience wishing that Mendelssohn had given her more to do. As always the veteran conductor James S. Little brings polish in his blending of the choral and orchestral elements, bringing a pleasing accentuation to Mendelssohn’s impressive writing for the strings, and allowing for the brass flourishes that were perhaps the most dominant musical sounds on Saturday night by way of resonance.
The child prodigy Mendelssohn, who at the young age of 27 knew how to stir his audience with choral writing largely patterned in dramatic style to the baroque masters, did his own spectacular rendition of “Wachet Auf” (“Sleepers Awake”) and “O welch eine Tiefe” (“O Great Is the Depth”) has often been praised for the compelling dramatic arc that is evident in “Paulus” and in the later masterpiece “Elijah.” But what really distinguishes his oratorios is the melting melodies he incorporates into his musically austere proceedings. It’s what ultimately sets the composer (and “Paulus”) apart as a listening experience of exceeding beauty, and what makes Mendelssohn’s hybrid such an original and ravishing listening experience. The Choral Art Society of New Jersey have done “Paulus” full justice, asking listeners to conducted their own re-evaluations.
Note: Lucille and I attended the performance of ‘Paulus’ by the Choral Art Society of New Jersey at 8:00 P.M. on a blustery cold Saturday night at the Prysbeterian Church in Westfield. There was a single intermission, and we later convened with some of the singers (a few are friends) at a Charlie Brown’s in nearby Scotch Plains.