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Brahms as Semi-Believer

New York
Rose Theatre, Frederick H. Rose Hall
03/20/2009 -  
Franz Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 103
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Joahnnes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (A German Requiem)

Leslie Fagan (Soprano), John Michael Moore (Baritone)
Margo Garrett, Sunglee Victoria Choi (Pianists), Musica Sacra Chorus

(© Musica Sacra)

Last year, Musica Sacra gave a concert which was—for one reason—a disaster. Carmina Burana without an orchestra is like Thai curry without peppers: it was properly done by the chorus, but without a hint of excitement, rudeness, the sense of evil and prurience and fun.

This year, the orchestra was also missing, but the chorus themselves are properly good, and gave a more than adequate rendering of Brahms’ German Requiem.

It opened, though, with the two pianists performing Schubert’s Fantasie, hardly an easy piece for four hands. Margo Garrett and Sunglee Victoria Choi—teacher and student at Julliard’s Collaborative Piano Department—were tuneful, sometimes lilting.

It was an unfortunate coincidence that the Philadelphia Orchestra, played the Mahler Wayfarer Songs just 72 hours before this concert. While Ms. Choi played the piano arrangement very competently indeed, one still remembered Charles Dutoit’s pinpoint conducting, glistening strings, the harp solos, those muted timpani beating out the notes, and the woodwind solos. The piano is hardly a substitute.

Nor could any two singers be different than Eric Owens and John Michael Moore. Both are baritones of great talent, but there the comparison ends. Mr. Owens sung each of the four poems as if his life depended on it. The lines were clear, the diction faultless, but one remembered most the deep emotion, the underlying passion of each and every verse.

Mr. Moore has, superficially a more cultivated voice. His deepest notes were a bit shy of the mark (Mr. Owens is a bass-baritone) but his rich sounds at the top were lovely. Yet this is not a simple lieder recital, despite the applause in between songs. Each poem tells a story, the stories are interwoven, and Mr. Moore sung with all the proper gestures. But one felt that he could have been singing Schumann or Brahms with the same dispassionate, almost disinterested emotion.

I am certain he is a wonderful actor in his operas at the Met and abroad. I only wish he had shown that same thespian quality in these dramatically intense songs.

He certainly redeemed himself in the Brahms German Requiem which made up the second half, with the Musica Sacra. In another country, I once had the temerity to say, after hearing this, that Brahms was an agnostic. A religious composer of my acquaintance severely chided me, saying that the work had to have been written by a True Believer. While the verses are indeed taken from the Good Book, there is only one reference to a Herr (Lord), and this is hardly hopeful. “Lord, teach met that I must have an end….and my life is nothing to you.”

Still, if not God, then Somebody up there must have been prompting Brahms when he composed it.

With the Mahler, I never got over the omission of an orchestra. Here, the four-hand arrangement was made by Brahms himself, and after the first movement, I could ignore that wonderful soft tread of the drums and the muted strings. The duo of Garrett and Choi were fine, though they did seem exhausted by the end.

One of course missed the cathedral atmosphere which this Requiem should have, but the Rose Theatre is so elegant that, just as one replaces orchestra with piano, we could replace flying buttresses and radiant vitraux with a beautiful stage. The piano, alas, with its full top up, blanked part of the chorus, but Musica Sacra is an excellent group. They don’t have that large sound which some movements deserve, but the voices are cohesive, confident and, under their regular conductor, Kent Tittle, the complex contrapuntal writing was beautifully defined.

Mr. Moore was better here than in the Mahler, simply because the feelings were reverent and austere. Leslie Fagan has a fine soprano, and her one solo had more than enough passion to go around.

Harry Rolnick



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