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Requiem For The Living

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/20/2008 -  
Johannes Brahms: Tragic Overture, Opus 81 – A German Requiem, Opus 45

Susanna Phillips (Soprano), Christopher Feigum (Baritone)
Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra, Kent Tritle (Conductor)

And yea, in Maytime did Kent Tritle raise his hands to his flocks with lutes and lyres in a joyous work on a Monday and so goodly were his acts, that the Lord did increase his flocks by sixfold and their years by tenfold for the following evening but admonished him to sacrifice joy for a work that celebrated life and death as one...”

To those not familiar with the Good Book, Kent Tritle conducted the 32-voice Musica Sacra chorus and miniature orchestra on Monday in Carmina Burana, but last night he had the more spacious Issac Stern Auditorium, the 180-odd voices Oratorio Society of New York, a full orchestra, and of course Brahms’s very unorthodox Requiem.

The change was dramatic, but Mr. Tritle showed the same enthusiasm. Granted, it is difficult to dance on the dais when singing about the dead, but the very practical Mr. Brahms made certain that the section where “the trumpet shall sound” was filled with enough sound and fury to wake the overstuffed congregation in Bremen Cathedral in 1869 for the premiere. The astounding thing was that a mere eight years later, the same work was premiered in New York by—yes—our very same Oratorio Society of New York, which had been founded in 1873.

We have no record of its sound then in Steinway Hall, but the cathedral-like properties of Carnegie Hall were impressive enough to catch the sounds of the choir at their best. (This wasn’t enough for the orchestra, though, which gave a pallid opening Tragic Overture.) The opening had the right spacious dark tone, with the violins absent, and the chorus slowly soared into the atmosphere which would cover the entire work.

The second section, (in English) “Behold all flesh” seems like a perfect Brahmsian melody, but of course this is ancient Lutheran hymn. Brahms may have intimated agnosticism (a word probably not invented then), but his was a Lutheran mentality, and the music unashamedly could (and has) been sung in cathedrals of every sect.

Throughout the work, the Oratorio Society voices were cohesive and responding, but when the sopranos and altos were singing, the men seemed far away indeed. Thus in the some of the highly polyphonic sections of the sixth movement, the chorus and orchestra blurred together, without all that fine Brahms writing.

The work benefited greatly by the two soloists. Christopher Feigum was a stunning baritone, and his dark shaded tones balanced well with the choral singing behind him. Susanna Phillips was a more interesting voice, and it took a few measures to accustom oneself to singing.. With her previous roles, like Papageno, one expected a lighter, floating lyrical voice. But she seemed grounded, a bit heavy at the beginning, and more comfortable in the middle range of her one long solo. That was an aural illusion. The statuesque soprano was savoring everything, not in “time” but in giving nuances and light-dark shading with every note she sung. It was an acquired taste, but took only a few measures to appreciate just how unique she is.

Mr. Tritle, though was in charge of the proceedings with a commanding touch. Whereas Monday’s Musica Sacra was an effort, with such small forces, to reach the abandon of Carmina Burana, here he had the luxury of New York’s finest ensemble, with a work which breathed—yes, that is the right word—strength, defiance, resignation, and finally, a very human joy.

Harry Rolnick



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