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S & H International Concert Review

Mendelssohn: Lauda Sion, Op. 73 (1846), Wagner: Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, Biblical Scene, WWV 69 (1843), Liszt: Missa solemnis (1856), Soloists, American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, June 6, 2004 (BH)


Elizabeth Keusch, Soprano
Jessie Hinkle, Mezzo-soprano
Brian Anderson, Tenor
Kevin Burdette, Bass
Concert Chorale of New York
James Bagwell, Director


Presenting three rarities in a program titled "Spiritual Romanticism," Leon Botstein again showed why he is one of the most accomplished programmers anywhere. I have never heard any of these three works live, and may never again. Botstein’s scholarship is virtually without peer, and all one needs as evidence is the handsome program booklet, as educational as it is a pleasure to read.

The Mendelssohn is beautiful – not the most riveting work but a pleasant one and well worth hearing. Written in 1846, the work was commissioned for the six-hundredth anniversary of Corpus Christi, and was first performed at the Belgian Church of St. Martin in Liège. Some of its eight sections are for chorus alone, while others are for the four soloists, or a combination of both. The soloists were generally very good, particularly Elizabeth Keusch, whose soprano and involved demeanor caught one’s attention all afternoon. Jessie Hinkle sounded lovely, especially in some of her duets with Keusch, and Brian Anderson’s lyricism was also quite welcome. I only wish Kevin Burdette hadn’t pushed his voice so hard. He clearly has a nice instrument, but somehow it emerged a bit strangled in the climaxes.

The unusual Wagner, written when the composer was just twenty-nine years old, is structured for maximum drama. (The work also foreshadows Parsifal, thirty-five years later, which uses some of this work’s musical elements.) The men’s chorus begins a capella and then continues for a good fifteen minutes or so, depicting God appearing to the Disciples and Apostles. When the orchestra finally enters, led by a soft tympani roll that quickly crescendos to a huge climax, the chorus announces, "What is that roar in the wind? What is that sound, that ring? Is the ground moving beneath our feet?" The men of the Concert Chorale acquitted themselves admirably, singing tunefully without drifting from the pitches – a very real worry in long a capella passages – and with well-rehearsed German diction.

As someone who generally avoids Liszt at all costs (sorry, but the truth will come out sooner or later), I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this work – another buried treasure just waiting for the right conductor to say, "This should really be exhumed more often." This is a dramatic, involving Missa Solemnis that could also easily be programmed with say, Beethoven’s (just to give Dr. Botstein another idea).

Opening with the chorus in dramatic chords in rising fifths, the work is lushly romantic for most of its span. The mood changes somewhat when we reach Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato (He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate), and the texture becomes more ominous, punctuated by stark organ chords. The Chorale again did excellent work with a difficult score, and the balances seemed better than they sometimes are, when the orchestra overpowers the voices. The brass section sounded particularly good, with an impressive unison fanfare for And he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.

I overheard a gentleman sitting behind me, saying the last time he heard the Liszt was thirty years ago. I hope he isn’t saying the same thing in 2034.

Bruce Hodges

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