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The Divine Ms. Morley

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/13/2010 -  
Johannes Brahms: Rhapsody for contralto, male chorus and orchestra, op. 53 – A German Requiem, op. 45

Stephanie Blythe (Mezzo-soprano), Erin Morley (Soprano), Eric Owens (Bass-baritone)
The Collegiate Chorale, American Symphony Orchestra, James Bagwell (Conductor)

E. Owens (© Dario Acosta)

George Bernard Shaw confessed that the only inducement to hear Brahms’ Requiem would be “a comfortable armchair, a good book and all the day’s newspapers.”

Not being “the perfect Wagnerite”, like G.B.S, I have no hesitation in hearing the German Requiem, though usually feeling it more plaintive than consoling.

Brahms wrote inspired enough choruses, some decent four-square melodies, and even a few surprising harmonic changes for attention. At the same time, Brahms felt such deference to his forebears, that he couldn’t help but throw in a scholarly fugue or two, and appear scrupulously reverential for a very secular Mass.

Still, when the Collegiate Chorale–70 years old, founded by the iconic Robert Shaw–is the chorus, when the commanding Eric Owens is the bass-baritone, and the meticulous James Bagwell leads the proceedings, one must pay attention.

Mr. Bagwell made the fateful mistake of starting with the same moribund tempo as the preceding Rhapsody, therein predicating a doleful 45 minutes. By the end of this first movement, though, he moved the tempo upwards, never quite kicking the gas (not even in the fervent last movement), but always keeping the music more agonized than bleak. In fact, during that dreamy interlude, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place”, he gave his chorus a charming Elysian sweetness.

E. Morley (© Dario Acosta)

The Collegiate Chorale was as energized as possible, and the American Symphony Orchestra, more accustomed to playing rare 19th Century music, was a decent accompanist.

Eric Owens, who has triumphed this month as Albrecht at the Met, gave his usually assured, sensitive and beautifully phrased performance. But it was Erin Morley, in her one role, which would confound the harshest critic.

“Yes, I will comfort you,” she sang, and comfort us she did. This was a most unusual role for the young coloratura soprano. She was divinely transformed into a lyrical soprano excelled in all the ranges. And by singing simply, with the most luscious tones, with immaculate phrasing, Ms. Morley accomplished when neither Messrs Bagwell, Owens or ensembles could do. She made Brahms’s Requiem an embracing non-forbidding human oratorio.

S. Blythe (© Kobie van Rensburg)

Not even Stephanie Blythe could turn the Rhapsody into a human document. Ms. Blythe is such a magnificent mezzo that one believed she could carry this most difficult piece. As always, her voice was clear, her enunciation of the Goethe lines was immaculate, the leaps up the scale taken faultlessly.

But nothing could make the misnamed Rhapsody rhapsodic. The orchestra moved, Ms. Blythe moved, the male chorus moved, but Goethe’s tale of misanthropy was given a reading that was static musically and unmoving emotionally.

Harry Rolnick



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