American Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein – Max Bruch’s Moses

Moses, Op.67 – Oratorio in two parts to a libretto by Ludwig Spitta based on Old Testament passages [sung in German]

Moses – Sidney Outlaw
Aaron – Kirk Dougherty
Der Engel des Herrn – Tamara Wilson

The Collegiate Chorale

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 27 March, 2014
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

In his day, Max Bruch (1838-1920) was looked upon as a dyed-in-the wool conservative. He would have nothing of the contemporary developments typical of the Wagnerians or the French Impressionists, although occasionally his music shows some mild concessions to the former. Instead, he labored long and hard on polishing his works, oriented toward Mendelssohn and Brahms. By the time his oratorio Moses was composed in 1894 and 1895, that genre had long been a thing of the past, so it is not surprising that Bruch’s examples have rarely been performed. Today, the composer’s name survives by virtue of his works for violin and orchestra, particularly the G minor Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy, and also his Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. There are three Symphonies. Nevertheless, Leon Botstein is justified in dusting off this well-crafted setting.

Leon Bostein. Photograph: Steve J ShermanThe Oratorio’s two parts cover four episodes in the life of Moses after his confrontation with Pharaoh and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. In the first section, ‘At Sinai’, Moses ascends to receive the Ten Commandments, leaving his brother, Aaron, to protect the people. The second section portrays Moses’s anger and Aaron’s remorse in the episode of ‘The Golden Calf’. The second Part begins with ‘The Return of the Scouts from Canaan’, and the final section, ‘The Promised Land’, opens with the Angel of the Lord’s announcement of Moses’s impending death and ends with a valedictory chorus of praise.

The work is in the classical oratorio format commonly used in the eighteenth-century for biblical subjects, juxtaposing recitatives (sometimes accompanied by organ), vocal solos, choruses and orchestral segments in a well-conceived arrangement. Bruch chose Ludwig Spitta, brother of the great biographer of J. S. Bach, to write the German-language libretto. Notwithstanding its format, Moses is operatic in conception, using both soloists and chorus in various combinations to develop the dramatic action. Moreover, there are few breaks between the nineteen numbered sections, giving a generally seamless progression. The musical idiom has many elements that recall high-romanticism, and occasionally forward-looking harmonic progressions appear, providing interesting coloristic effects. But thematic material can seem threadbare.

Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra gave an admirable performance, unwavering, clear and distinct, without trying to impress through excessive speed, overwhelming welters of sound or other gimmicks. Botstein’s straightforward reading was both respectful and committed. Each of the soloists contributed to the success. Kirk Dougherty as Aaron was in splendid voice, singing with ample dynamic range, perfect diction, faultless control and dynamic expression. He gave moving renditions of Aaron’s repentance (“Woe to him who abominates and despises the Lord!”) and his exhortation to Moses to plead with the Lord for the people’s redemption from sin (“Hear me, Moses”). Sidney Outlaw captured the substantial title role with dignity, ardor and depth. As the Angel of the Lord, Tamara Wilson sang with purity of tone, and with power and fervency. The members of the splendid Collegiate Chorale, operating somewhat like a Greek chorus, represented the people outstandingly well. They sang with hushed solemnity in describing Moses’s ascent up the mountain, and with ample force during the Golden Calf episode.

Bruch’s Moses may seem old-fashioned now but it is one of the few oratorios that even come close to achieving the potential this story has to offer. Notwithstanding the occasional opera on the subject, Rossini’s for example, it is high time for a contemporary composer to take up the subject and do it justice.

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