The city is full of good concerts, and occasionally you’ll attend one good enough to make you think that, despite the mayor and the subway and the trash, you’re lucky to live in New York. There was one such program given on Sunday, June 2, not at the Met or Carnegie Hall but at a tiny church called Saint John’s In the Village, which seats hardly a hundred people.
The latest installment in the “Bach to the Future” series, organized by the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture, presented a series of chorales and songs by Bach, Schubert, and Brahms. The selection of music was a masterpiece, with back-to-back settings of the same text by Bach and Brahms providing a miniature lesson in the evolution of music.
Two chorales from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion were sung admirably by the Foundation’s youth chorus. The chorus is a worthy project both in education and community: Its members are schooled in traditional bel canto, and the results are impressive from so young a group. (Most of its members appear to be around ten or twelve years old.) The balance of the concert was given by pianist-organist Jonathan DePeri and baritone soloist Frank Mathis.
Brahms is sadly underperformed today, owing perhaps to an unfortunate trick of chronology: He is the last of the German classical masters. Performers who specialize in the classical tradition have their hands full with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert before they get to him. Whereas performers who prefer the romantic tradition recognize, even if music historians do not, that Brahms isn’t a romantic composer. His music simply isn’t self-indulgent enough to be classed with the newer styles that were brewing in France and Eastern Europe.
Brahms was fighting a rearguard action with musical history, which of course he lost. But the fruits of his struggle are some of the most beautiful pieces in the Western canon. And no composer before or since has equaled his understanding of the sonorous bass resonance of the piano. Brahms is a composer of texture.
The Brahms program was DePeri’s inspiration. DePeri is a talented pianist who studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and whose renderings of two Brahms–Busoni chorale arrangements were particularly fine. He further showed exceptional taste — a quality at least as important as talent and twice as rare.
Brahms was a mostly large-scale composer who presided over a continuing growth of the size of the symphony orchestra. But Schubert had a special affinity for lieder — short songs — and for small settings. A portrait by Gustav Klimt (destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War) showed Schubert where he most liked to be: at the piano in an intimate gathering, an evening with friends. He preferred that venue to the concert hall, and both the lieder and the chamber music to which he devoted himself were designed to be performed at home.
Mathis, who also serves as the Foundation’s choral director, is an extraordinary performer. Self-taught, he has studied formally for only a year or so, which makes the beauty of his attainment absolutely shocking. His warmth in nuance and feeling embraced the entire room: Schubert would most certainly have approved. It was a wonderful thing to encounter, in the West Village, a voice that I could have heard with pleasure on stage at the Met.