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Transfiguration And Death

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
08/22/2008 -  August 23, 2008
Mostly Mozart Festival:
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mass in C Minor K.427

Sally Matthews (Soprano), Lisa Milne (Sorpano), William Ferguson (Tenor), Jason Grant (Bass)
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Conductor)

When Richard Strauss was 32, he went goodly into that gentle knight, Don Quixote. Half a century later, Strauss refused to go gentle into that other good night, and the result was his ultimate opus, a work for 23 solo strings that had no predecessors and no inheritors.

That work, Metamorphosen; was the transfiguring start for the last concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which closed with a Mass for the dead. The result was a rather strange final program. For while it gave enormous inspiration to conductor Louis Langrée and his mighty forces, it hardly packed the triumphant sounds one would have liked for such a triumphantly original summer season.

But the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (an ungainly name for a most graceful ensemble) was up for most of the challenges, so its emphasis on the Hereafter rather than the here-and-now was easily assuaged by some wonderful music-making.

The Strauss work has both its assets and liabilities when played live. Watching the 23 strings played at different times, with different bowings (and here, all except the celli standing), was as fascinating as watching a 1940’s Big Band with different brass bobbing and weaving. It was also enlightening to listen to the complex harmonic and polyphonic lines moving next to each other, weaving in and out, forming a thick harmonic texture.

Yet something was wrong here. So intricate is the music that during this live performance it was difficult to separate the lines, to actually see the route it was taking. Yes, one could “spot” the “Eroica” theme or hints of Tristan. But with each instrument playing its own lines, one could have been simply washed over with the music. Strauss’s intention in his ninth decade was hardly to throw a bucket of water over his audience.

Perhaps in a live performance, this is inevitable. While Richard Strauss would be the last person to look for electronic editing to make his music go, editing this work on disk has the advantage of straightening out the balance, of giving emphases which not even the wonderful Maestro Langrée was capable.

No such caveats existed for the big, booming, massive, triumphant K.427 Mass, in Mozart’s most dramatic key of C minor (though that key is used only in the first movement) Musicologists have fretted for centuries about filling in Mozart’s “holes” in the score (Maestro Langrée himself edited the performance last night). Ecclesiastics fret that the Mass doesn’t have a final Agnus Dei (though Constanze Mozart wisely suggested that the words could be sung to the original Kyrie Eleison).

But these little contentions were pedantic when one hears the work with full double chorus, with two extraordinary (and very different sopranos), and with a conductor who lends it such joy.

The Concert Chorale of New York not only started with a solemn offering of the Kyrie, and continued with almost Handelian robustness, (especially in the eight-part writing of Qui tollis”) but they were capable of the most sensitive emotions,. Most notable was the Gloria which exploded rhythmically in the first section, and then immediately expressed “peace on earth” in sotto voce stillness.

(Considering the world’s situation today, I would have turned those dynamics around, but I doubt if God is interested in sheer volume.)

Yet the burden here rests on the two sopranos. Sally Matthews was simply breathtaking—though the breaths were ours, since she seemed to sing quite easily without them. She may be far too operatic, especially in the incredible solo of the Kyrie, but her duets with Lisa Milne had real personality.

Ms. Milne’s voice never tried to compete with the soaring soprano of Ms. Matthews. But all of the solos were intricate, delicate, virtually coloratura showpieces, and neither soprano faltered. (The two solo males were merely appendages to the females in this piece.)

What gave the Mass its grandeur was the huge orchestral forces in the church. Under Mr. Langrée, the full Mostly Mozart ensemble worked up the kind of storm which would make any Savior quickly hoist the departed through the Pearly Gates.

While that may have been pleasing to the Dearly Departed, our own dearly departed conductor, Louis Langrée, will be leaving this summer job for his work in Europe. It isn’t enough to offer him a “bon voyage”. For us fortunate audiences, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The quality of our ’Merci bien’ is not strain’d….”

Harry Rolnick



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