As I have noted in the past, much as I love hearing the standard repertory at the symphony, encountering a work for the first time has a special kind of excitement. Schoenberg’s "Friede auf Erden" is not a new piece—it was written in 1907 and first performed in 1911—but this is the first time the Symphony Chorus has tackled it. And (to stretch this metaphor past the breaking point), they scored a touchdown.
One look at the score of "Friede auf Erden" shows why this is likely the kind of work that gives choir directors the willies. Polyrhythms are frequent, and Schoenberg’s harmony, while still close to the late 19th century mainstream, definitely looks forward to his upcoming abandonment of key-centered composition. One gets the sense the Schoenberg never really understood what Davie Vernier (in a review for Classics Today) describes as “the practicalities of producing pitch-accurate sounds with human rather than mechanical instruments” and, in fact, the first scheduled performance in 1907 was cancelled because the singers just couldn’t hack it.
There were no such problems Friday night. Under Jun Märkl, the chorus delivered a performance that was as powerful as it was precise. The emotional impact of the text—a Christmas poem with a potent anti-war message by the Swiss poet and historical novelist Conrad Meyer—was stunning, assisted by a projected English translation. Anyone who wasn’t nearly moved to tears by those closing measures was made of sterner stuff than yours truly. You couldn’t have asked for a better opener.
Brilliant musicianship was the order of the evening in the next work as well. Haydn’s D major “Cello Concerto” was written for Esterhazy court cellist Anton Kraft in the 1780s. Based on the difficulty of the solo part, which exploits the instrument’s full range and calls for nearly every technical trick in the book, I’ve got to conclude that Herr Kraft was quite the virtuoso.
Happily, “quite the virtuoso” is a phrase that applies just as well to symphony principal cellist Daniel Lee. If you were fortunate enough to hear his Dvořák “Cello Concerto this past April, you know just how good Mr. Lee is. Back then I noted that his playing combined nimble hands with a warm heart. Both were on display once again in the Haydn. His bravura performance of contemporary German cellist Reiner Ginzel’s first movement cadenza (as was customary at the time, Haydn didn’t provide one) resulted in spontaneous applause at the movement’s end, the second movement Adagio radiated ethereal beauty, and the concluding Rondo delivered all the good humor for which Haydn was noted. Mr. Märkl and the orchestra backed Mr. Lee up nicely, and there was good communication between conductor and soloist.
The big draw for these concerts, of course, is the Mozart “Requiem”. Begun during the final months of the composer’s life, it’s a mostly stirring and affecting setting of the standard Latin mass for the dead that’s understandably popular with performers and audiences alike. I say “mostly” because Mozart died before he could complete it and the parts commonly attributed to his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr (who may or may not have had help from others) are clearly the work of a second-rater. The “Benedictus”, in particular, could do with some editing.*
Still, four-fifths (or thereabouts) of a Mozart masterpiece is still very fine stuff. The anguished shrieks of the violins in the “Requiem aeternam”, the dramatic “Dies irae”, the heartfelt quartet of the “Recordare”, and the famous baritone and trombone duet of the “Tuba mirum” are only a few of the many memorable things in this lovely score.
And what a masterful performance by Mr. Märkl and the chorus! I’ve only seen him conduct the symphony twice in the past. They were both heavily Romantic programs, so it was a pleasure to see him approach Mozart with the same combination of passion and attention to individual performers and sections that he had lavished on Ravel, Dvořák, and Saint-Saëns in those earlier programs. The members of the chorus, of course, were their usual flawless selves.
The vocal soloists for the “Requiem” have a nice mix of concert, oratorio, and opera appearances in their resumes, so you won’t be surprised to learn that they fully do justice to the music’s drama without ever committing the musical equivalent of overacting. I was especially taken with soprano Dominique Labelle’s work in the “Recordare” and with the way baritone Stephen Powell blended so well Vanessa Fralick’s flawless trombone in the “Tuba mirum”, but all four singers were really impeccable.
This very satisfying program will be repeated Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, November 10 and 11. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU) at 90.7 FM and HD 1. If you love fine singing, you’ll want to catch it one way or the other.
Next on the symphony calendar is an all-Tchaikovsky program with conductor Andrey Boreyko and violinist Vadim Gluzman. Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM (a Krispy Kreme Coffee Concert with free doughnuts), Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, November 16– 18. There’s also a youth orchestra concert on the 16th at 7 PM. For more information: stlsymphony.org.
*Nearly everything about the “Requiem” has been a source of dispute since Mozart’s death, including the wisdom of using Süssmayr’s completion. At least two other completions were done in the early 19th century and several musicologists have produced their own over the last four or five decades. You can read all about it on Wikipedia or take a look at Christoph Wolff’s 1994 book “Mozart’s Requiem”.