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HORROR stories of the grimmest complexion filtered through the week concerning the imminent disintegration of the HRO's impending Beethoven Ninth concert. The Choirs, supposedly stripped of their talents by the reorganization of the Glee Club, were said to be less than protean musicreaders, and in general hopelessly inadequate to the almost insuperable vocal difficulties of Beethoven's masterwork. And so, as I entered the hall I remembered Robert Scott's famous lament at the end of his diary, written as the merciless Antarctic finally buried him: "We took risks; we knew we took them."
As a preliminary, Schoenberg's late work, A Survivor from Warsaw (1946) for male chorus, narrator and orchestra was performed. In this work Schoenberg strikes a medium between lyric singing and his own device of sprechstimme, by setting his expressionist text to notes of various vertical distances above and below a reference line. The work, described as "savage" in the program notes but bordering on melodrama, describes Schoenberg's raging desperateness as the Jews flee Nazist Warsaw, and his resumption of the Jewish faith in the face of this tragic modern Diaspora. This profound personal utterance seems to suffer from the same type of self-consciously tortured text which reduced Bernstein's Kaddish symphony to almost complete rhetorical vacuousness. The performance was frenetic rather than impassioned, especially in the closing Hebrew prayer Sh'ma Yisroel, but since the work is one organized explosion of dismay suffused with the solace of Schoenberg's fund of religious faith, the somewhat overwrought vitality of the performance was understandable.
Having survived Warsaw, I awaited the Beethoven with ambivalent anticipation. The Chorus was massive enough to rout Xerxes' Persian legions but sang with respectable diction and infectious enthusiasm, far outshining the supernatural unimaginativeness of Mr. Yannatos' conductorial efforts in the first three movements. The orchestral contribution was by turns trenchant and languid, almost always exhibiting a sepulchral gravity. The blame must be placed on Mr. Yannatos' amorphous conception of the work. His most persistent problem was metrical confusion, as he repeatedly failed to find the perfect tempo where metrical relaxation and momentum would conjoin.
Another problem was his inability to perceive the organic emotional continuity of this great work. He missed the miracle of the Scherzo, in which Beethoven keeps an ostinato theme from becoming mechanical, by adopting a slow tempo. There was hardly a touch of gentleness and sway in the priceless slow movement in which every phrase should be continent and compassionate, where lyricism and drama should perfectly intermingle. Yannatos tolerated reticent playing, displayed an at times staggering lapse of taste in phrasing, and generally enervated the performance by failing to grasp the dramatic ethos of Beethoven's universal consciousness.
BUT THE surpassing beauty and power of the Finale swept all these profanations before them. The orchestra coalesced with fine string playing for the most part, especially in the opening violincello recitative which comes just before the main theme dispels Beethoven's irresolution. The solo quartet, however, was unconscionably bad. The bass, Mr. Mac Morgan, was totally inadequate to his tasks, displaying no vestige of tone and only a certain diaphrammatic eloquence. Paul Huddleston, the tenor, was the best of the four soloists, but was unremittingly routine. The two women, soprano Chloe Owen and contralto Mary Davenport, sang like superannuated Valkyries, spoiling the quartet passage with their mettalic loudness, and obliterating every bar they touched.
The Chorus was the joy of the evening, especially the soprano, singing with considerable excellence in the Andante Maestoso and the final Prestissimo sections. Only the Chorus adumbrated some sense of the Oppolinian sweep and profundity of Beethoven's greatst testament.
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