Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall – Britten’s War Requiem

War Requiem, Op.66

Emalie Savoy (soprano), John Matthew Myers (tenor) & Jesse Blumberg (baritone)

Choristers of the Cathedral Choir of St. John the Divine

Chorus & Orchestra of the Oratorio Society of New York
Kent Tritle
David Rosenmeyer [chamber orchestra]
Malcolm Merriweather [choristers]

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 22 April, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Coventry Cathedral, UKBenjamin Britten’s War Requiem – first performed on 20 May 1962 at the then new Coventry Cathedral in England – is one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century. Written in memory of four World War Two victims, War Requiem integrates the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen (killed just one week before the end of World War I) into the Mass for the Dead in a most creative and impressive way, with Owen’s words both reinforcing and giving personal significance to the Latin texts. It is a daunting work to perform, requiring full orchestra and chorus with soprano, a chamber ensemble that accompanies the male soloists, and specifically a boy choir (which here included girls). Frequent meter shifts generate a sense of imbalance reinforced by sudden outbursts that have a disquietingly chilling effect. Plainchant and complex choral polyphony contrast with recitative and arioso for solo voices. Moments of quiet desperation alternate with huge eruptions that seem to emerge from the depths of a soul in torment.

The Oratorio Society of New York, founded in 1873 by Leopold Damrosch, has a long and distinguished history of performance of and helping career-minded musicians. This was a lyrical performance of War Requiem, and although several passages seemed under restraint, it made an enormous impact. Kent Tritle, now in his eighth season as Kent Tritle conducting the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall. Photograph: Tim Dwightthe Society’s music director, was generally successful in urging both chorus and orchestra to give all they had to this performance, and for the most part the chorus sang clearly and assertively with a sense of engagement that only occasionally became routine.

A subdued mystical atmosphere pervaded the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’, despite some intonation problems in both ensembles. At the beginning of the terrifying ‘Dies irae’, the brass tattoos that conjure up visions of a battlefield seemed rather attenuated, sometimes even self-conscious, but the soft stillness of the prayer that closes the section was almost as impressive as the imposing climax of the final ‘Libera me’. Some passages in between seemed rather dry, however, even if well honed.

Jesse Blumberg. Photograph: Arielle DonesonEmalie Savoy sang with a commanding presence and a powerful, vibrant voice; her piercing and deeply painful cry in the ‘Lacrimosa’ made a strong impression, demonstrating that that she is well on the way to a successful career; Savoy debuted at the Metropolitan Opera last season as Kristina in Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. The male soloists are also in the early stages of promising careers. John Matthew Myers, principally an opera singer, and Jesse Blumberg, who combines opera roles with song recitals, have relatively light voices. In their efforts to radiate Owen’s chilling description of war and the senseless death it leaves in its wake, Myers was the more successful, owing to his greater projection. In their “Strange Meeting” dialogue, in which a dead soldier confronts the enemy who killed him, neither singer was fully successful in imbuing the words with dramatic import, but the section that followed made a lasting impression, with desperate cries for peace sung movingly by soprano and the choruses. When the last notes sounded all was silence for some time as Tritle remained facing the performers. When at last he put his baton down the audience exploded with applause.

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