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Stuttgarter Psalmen

composer
2009; No 1: ST soli, SATB SATB; Nos 2: SA soli, SSA trio, SSAATTBB; No 3: SSAATTBB
author of text
Psalms 2, 22 & 43

 
The Stuttgarter Psalmen were commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart. Several composers were invited to write psalm settings for the 2009 bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth. The brief was to revisit those psalms set by Mendelssohn himself. Mäntyjärvi was assigned the text from Mendelssohn’s Opus 78, which consists of three separate psalm settings. Mäntyjärvi added the Hebrew original of ‘Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?’: ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?’—in that form rather than the more common ‘lama sabakhtani’ because, as the composer points out, ‘it is the form in Luther’s Bible translation that was used in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn brought back to life’. Given free rein over musical content, Mäntyjärvi makes no allusion to Mendelssohn’s material. Rather, the detectable influences are from older composers, particularly Schütz and Handel, obliquely referenced through antiphonal writing and passages of polyphony.

The Stuttgarter Psalmen were first performed in Stuttgart by the Uppsala Academic Chamber Choir from Sweden, directed by Stefan Parkman. These expansive statements move away from the relative simplicity of the Ave Maria d’Aosta. The first deploys an immense range of expressive and textural effects, notable among them a passage of intense ‘orchestration’ featuring unison doubling of one choir’s sopranos with the other choir’s tenors (the latter climbing therefore to stratospheric heights).

The unison angularity of Psalm 2’s opening question recurs insistently throughout the setting of Warum toben die Heiden?. Having arranged his forces into two choirs, Mäntyjärvi progressively shortens the arresting silences that punctuate the antiphonal call-and-response process. Consequently the two choirs eventually achieve continuity—and then a sinewy free counterpoint as they overlap, before quick-fire alternation of semiquavers between the choirs, on and off the beat, makes daunting demands on the virtuosity of the singers. A more processional mood dominates the central stages. An uneasy calm is later achieved through synthesis of the two prevailing textures, when the first choir’s returning question from the opening is tempered by the second choir’s unruffled, consonant stillness. Here, instead of shortening silences, it is the first choir’s questioning that is progressively curtailed, until all that remains is the single word ‘warum?’ (‘why?’). As if in confirmation that this remains unanswerable, the music ends on what in another context would be seen as a ‘dominant seventh’: a harmony requiring resolution through an ensuing chord—but here receiving none.

Psalm 22 dispenses with antiphony, deploying the choir in SSAATTBB format instead. The ashen quality of the lamenting text Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? elicits music of visionary intensity. Mäntyjärvi’s claim to be ‘largely consonance-driven’ requires some qualification here; for the harmony often implies resolutions hovering just beyond reach, yet regularly achieves arresting dissonances. Notable examples include the recurrent keening of the three uppermost parts, inconsolably repeating their ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?’ as if they had continued unheard beneath all the intervening music; and also the startling plangency of the final Amen, after which ‘Eli, Eli …’ is heard one final time, seeming to fade beyond hearing, not actually cease. In the unsettlingly visceral fifteenth verse, harmony drains from the music as if it were ‘bleeding out’, leaving only stark octaves sung by half the choir against desiccated stage whispers of the text from the remainder. Seldom can ‘the dust of death’ have been so grimly evoked. In egregious contrast, the twenty-third verse calls forth direct allusion to the Venice-influenced music of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), which rises to the surface like buried script from some ancient palimpsest.

Tonally, Psalm 22 sits on a knife-edge, its attempts to find quietus in the tonal centre of D undermined by an alternating combination of the flattened second and seventh notes in the scale (reflecting Mäntyjärvi’s evident fondness for the Phrygian mode) and the sharpened (Lydian) fourth. The shorter Psalm 43, Richte mich, Gott, communicates more simply in performance, yet its score embodies considerable complexity despite the homophonic unanimity of many passages. Tonally anchored to B flat, its inner pendulum swings continually between major and minor modes, in the process finding many tonal side-doors into neighbouring territory. The dark heart of this remarkable triptych is Psalm 22; yet, crucially, this final setting possesses the weight and intensity necessary to balance the opening movement.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2020

Recordings

Mäntyjärvi: Choral Music
Studio Master: CDA68266Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

No 1: Warum toben die Heiden?
Track 2 on CDA68266 [7'31]
No 2: Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?
Track 3 on CDA68266 [13'31]
No 3: Richte mich, Gott
Track 4 on CDA68266 [7'03]

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