By Oberon's Grove Thursday March 27th, 2014 - The American Symphony Orchestra and The Collegiate Chorale joined forces for a presentation of Max Bruch's 1895 oratorio MOSES at Carnegie Hall tonight
Oratorios - basically operas without sets, costumes and with little or no dramatic inter-action between participants - became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy; opera-lovers embraced the genre because of the Catholic Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorio reached its apex during the time of Handel. In the late 19th century, Bruch was one of a handful of composers to continue working in this field and though it now seems a bit passé, oratorio remained viable throughout the 20th century, with works by such diverse composers as Stravinsky, Honegger, Penderecki, Golijov, and Sir Paul McCartney coming to fruition. In the 21st century, to date, Einhorn and Satoh have written oratorios.
Bruch's MOSES seems in part to have been written - with the encouragement of Johannes Brahms - as a rallying cry against the flood-tide of Wagnerism. Although Wagner had been dead for twelve years (and thus the music of the future was already in the past) when MOSEShad its premiere (in 1895), music was already veering off in exciting new directions. To put Bruch's work in a bit of context, Mahler's 2nd symphony also premiered in 1895, and Claude Debussy had already writtenL'après-midi d'un faune (1894) and was at work on PELLEAS ET MELISANDE.
That oratorio still appeals to audiences today was testified by the large, attentive and enthusiastic crowd at Carnegie Hall tonight. Bruch's 'conservative' music shone beautifully in a finely-paced performance led by Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Collegiate Chorale lovingly embraced the work, and the three vocal soloists seized on the many opportunities for expressive singing which Bruch provided for them.
Bruch draws upon four chronological events from the life of Moses to form the four parts of the oratorio. In the first, Moses is seen as the spiritual leader of his people receiving the Ten Commandments (which are nowadays considered the Ten Suggestions) on Mount Sinai. The second part revolves around the worship of the golden calf by Aaron, with the angry Moses lashing out at his brother and his renegade people.
Following an intermission, we have the particularly impressive 'Return of the Scouts from Canaan' where the chorus and the male soloists did some truly impressive work. In the final part, commencing with a long funereal address by the Angel of the Lord, we witness the death of Moses who, having brought his people to the Promised Land, gives a final blessing to his followers; the oratorio ends with a choral lament.
There are three soloists: Moses (bass-baritone), Aaron (tenor), and the Angel of the Lord (soprano). The libretto (in German, natürlich) is a mixture of paraphrase from the Old Testament and quotations from the Psalms. The chorus, in the role of the people of Israel, hold forth in much the same style developed in Mendelssohn’s great oratorio ELIJAH. The organ plays a prominent role, both as a solo instrument for recitatives or woven into the orchestral tapestry. The overall effect is rich, soul-stirring, and falls ever-so-pleasantly on the ear.
Sidney Outlaw as Moses sang with dignity and increasing emotional power as the evening progressed; his baritone voice was able to successfully encompass the music which spans a wide range, including some resonant low notes. As the Angel of the Lord, soprano Tamara Wilson's strong, vibrant soprano proved also capable of some shiningpiano notes in the upper range. She was especially moving in the solo which opens the oratorio's final movement where she tells Moses of his impending death. Ms. Wilson's performance made me think she might be a wonderful Ariadne in the Strauss opera.
Tenor Kirk Dougherty made a particularly appealing vocal impression as Aaron; his voice is clear, warm and steady, filling the hall with expressive lyricism. He is able to generate considerable power without forcing and to develop a nice ping to the tone as the music rises higher. His big aria ("I go to the gates of Hell") in the oratorio's third part was the vocal highlight of the evening; as the text turns to pleading with Moses for forgiveness, Mr. Dougherty found a wonderful melancholy colour in his tonal palette, making me think what a very fine Lenski he might be. The aria even has a little 'cabaletta' which the tenor dispatched with élan.
Overall this was a very impressive evening: an opportunity to experience a rare work from out of the pages of musical history and to find its heart still beating and its drama still meaningful. In one ironic touch, despite the alleged 'antidote-to-Wagner' intent of the composer, I unmistakably heard a glimmer of a theme from - of all things - the Venusberg music fromTANNHAUSER...twice. This little ambiguity somehow gave me a secret smile.