The Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall – Bach Magnificat and Mozart Requiem

J.S. Bach
Magnificat in D, BWV243

Requiem in D minor, K626 [completed by Süssmayr]

Susanna Phillips (soprano)
Lucia Bradford (mezzo-soprano)
Eric Finbarr Carey (tenor)
Joseph Beutel (bass-baritone)

Oratorio Society of New York
Orchestra of the Society
Kent Tritle

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 6 November, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Oratorio Society of New York opened its 150th anniversary season with two of the most celebrated compositions in the choral repertoire. The concert began with a refined rendition of J.S. Bach’s bracingly compact masterpiece, the Magnificat in D. With more than half of its twelve movements set as arias or duets, a successful interpretation requires a first rate group of soloists. On this occasion the four were mostly in top form, the only exceptions being soprano Susanna Phillips’s hardly audible account of her ‘Et exsultavit’ and bass-baritone Joseph Beutel’s ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’, which required more power. Mezzo Lucia Bradford and tenor Eric Finbarr Carey brought out the very best in each other in their splendidly balanced ‘Et misericordia’.

An ideal performance of the 1723 canticle might use a chorus with a small fraction of the members OSNY’s 200-strong choir. It might also deploy a body of period instruments in place of the Society’s modern-instrument freelance ensemble. Although the number of singers on stage occasionally obscured Bach’s counterpoint, this rendition proved highly satisfying, largely because of music director Kent Tritle’s precision. Instrumental highlights included an exquisitely ethereal oboe obligato in the aria, ‘Quia respexit’, and the brilliant trumpets in the closing ‘Gloria’. The choral forces provided gorgeous singing throughout; most exemplary was the opening ‘Magnificat’ and the swift-paced ‘Fecit potentiam’.  

The second half of the program was devoted to what must be music’s most illustrious encounter with the spectre of death: Mozart’s Requiem. Under Tritle’s competent and confident direction, the overlapping themes of anxiety, anger and acceptance were dramatically brought to life by the choir, orchestra and the four soloists, filling Carnegie Hall’s vast auditorium with sublime sound. 

Tritle’s brisk tempos permitted energetic forward motion, especially in the ‘Kyrie’. In the urgently fearful ‘Dies irae’ the performance became increasingly crisp and characterful; the ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’ displaying the polyphony with remarkable transparency. The ‘Confutatus’ was brimming with fire while the mournful ‘Lacrimosa’, heart wrenching. The whole ensemble rose to the challenges in the fugal writing that closes many sections of the work, effectively asserting their lines, and sounding magnificentmost notably at the end of the ‘Offertorium’.  

The solo quartet was strongest in the middle of the tonal spectrum, with Bradford’s opulent mezzo successfully navigating the depths of her register in the alto solos, and Carey bringing impressively dramatic textures to his tenor lines. Bradford and Phillips blended nicely in the beguiling ‘Benedictus’. Beutel’s bass-baritone intoned the opening of the ‘Tuba mirum’ authoritatively but lacked true heft in the bottom range.

The choristers responded to Tritle’s direction with splendid unity and ravishing tone, the sopranos never stumbling over the top of Mozart’s soaring lines. There were too some full choral passages of breath-taking beauty such as the hushed ending of the ‘Agnus Dei’. Together with the orchestra they brought the piece to a powerfully emphatic close with the phrase ‘cum sanctis tuis’ marking a return to the ‘Kyrie’ fugue and building to a resplendent climax and a long-held final chord.  

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