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New York Choral Society delights with rare Schubert and Thompson

Sun Nov 19, 2017 at 1:02 pm
David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society Saturday night at St. Francis Xavier Church.

David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society Saturday night at St. Francis Xavier Church.

David Hayes and the New York Choral Society performed an exquisite program of rare Schubert alongside Randall Thompson’s Frostiana: Seven Country Songs Saturday night in the warm open space of St. Francis Xavier Church in the Flatiron District.

The evening opened with Schubert’s brief “Widerspruch” D.865. Published posthumously on the day of Schubert’s funeral in November 1828, this short song for male voices is set to a section of the Austrian poet Johann Gabriel Seidl’s Jägerlieder (“Hunting Poems”). The cheery D major introduction in the piano suggests a frolic through the countryside, and Zalman Kelber’s idiomatic playing conveyed this skillfully. The men entered a few bars later, singing joyfully of navigating through “bush and branch.” The couplet scheme of the poetry makes it such that the song requires deft enunciation, and the breathlessness of the setting is even suggested by Seidl’s “Luftgedräng” (“oppressive air”) in the second verse. The chorus handled this masterfully, switching dynamics as necessary and maintaining a keen sense of the musical line.

Schubert’s Der 23. Psalm, D.706, featured the women of the chorus alone. Schubert wrote this short work in December 1820 as a test piece for vocal students, belying its difficulty.  The contrapuntal imitation was executed idiomatically, with Hayes cuing each section in clearly. Especially notable was the diction of the singers—consonant-heavy words like “schmachtendes” and “beschützest” can often be lost in the vocal texture, but the uniformity of articulation always preserved the clarity of the text.

The final Schubert piece of the program Mirjams Siegesgesang, D.942, was more substantial in length and performing forces, and was also one of Schubert’s last pieces. Scored for a full choir and soprano soloist, the text is taken from the Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, whose poem is based on the episode of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt.

The work requires a strong soprano to sing over a full chorus, rising to a high C. Gabriella Reyes de Ramírez delivered an impressive performance, although at times her vibrato in the louder register blurred the pitch. She shone especially in the softer sections of the music. The choral singing was not quite as polished n this more challenging music, but it retained an organic unity, leading effectively to the triumphant coda.

Randall Thompson’s Frostiana was written in 1959 to celebrate the bicentennial of Amherst, Massachusetts, and set to a selection of Robert Frost’s poems. The pairing with the Schubert works was artful since, except for the first and last songs,  Frostiana also divides individual sections for male and female singers.

The entire performance was tightly controlled in all senses, from crisp articulation to idiomatic phrasing and shaping to clear enunciation and dynamic contrast. Of special note was the dialogue between male and female choruses in the fourth song, “The Telephone.” Equally memorable was the impassioned rendition of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a tranquil minor-key song in which the snow is almost made palpable by the slow harmonic rhythm and meditative pauses. The closing line of the cycle, “and be staid,” brought a sense of closure to this seven-movement work, and to the evening.

Vishnu Bachani is a student of mathematics and music at New York University. He has written for The Bruckner Journal and Bachtrack, and does analytical research on the music of Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler among other composers, which he regularly posts on his website.


November 19

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