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August 29, 2005

A Moscow Choir Fills In for Mozart's Ignorance of Russia

New York Times:

For next summer's Mostly Mozart Festival maybe Louis Langrée, the music director, should simply dispense with the idea of giving the programs a thematic link. This season's theme, "Traveling With Mozart," was marginally interesting if somewhat gimmicky. What mattered more is that besides again proving himself a dynamic conductor, Mr. Langrée demonstrated a knack for putting together interesting programs, theme or no theme. Actually, the most intriguing programs were those with the least connection to the "Traveling With Mozart" focus, including the concerts that concluded the festival so successfully on Friday and Saturday nights.

Exploring the connection between Mozart and Russia is a dubious proposition, because there was none. Not only did Mozart never visit the place, he knew next to nothing about it. But his music was embraced there, thanks in part to the Ukrainian composer Dmitri Bortniansky, a Mozart contemporary who was steeped in Italian music, studied opera in Italy and introduced works like Mozart's Requiem to the imperial court in St. Petersburg.

It was a musically rewarding idea to pair a performance of Bortniansky's inventive and urgent a cappella Te Deum with Mozart's Mass in C minor. To sing the Russian Orthodox work the festival had utterly authoritative interpreters in the Patriarchate Choir of Moscow, an all-male ensemble of 12, conducted by Anatoly Grindenko. And as long as this renowned Russian choir was on hand, why not have them do what they do best? So they preceded the Bortniansky work with a half-hour of Russian sacred music mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries.

There is nothing quite like the sound of a Russian choir singing early Russian sacred music. The pure and ethereal sounds of traditional choruses singing Josquin or Palestrina have little in common with the earthy, guttural, bass-heavy Russian Patriarchate Choir. Even the tenors have a beefy quality to their sound. Judicious blending and careful balances are not the point.

The music is elemental and less concerned with polyphonic intricacies than Renaissance and Baroque European styles. It was startling to hear modal harmonies moving in unabashed parallel motion, smashing Western protocols of voice-leading along the way. A fixture of this repertory involves long, eerie sustained notes in the lower voices, like organ pedal tones, over which the upper voices dispatch ornate, skittish yet curiously plaintive melodic lines. Hearing this effect you realize that Russian music has as many connections to the traditions of south-central Asia as to those of Europe.

After some 40 minutes of severe Russian a cappella sacred music Mozart's richly scored Mass in C minor sounded as voluptuous as Ravel. Yet with the Russian sacred music still in mind, the somber overall mood of Mozart's mass came through powerfully. It was touching to see the members of the Patriarchate Choir standing among the choristers of the Concert Chorale of New York for this performance. They certainly added heft to bass and tenor sections. Mr. Langrée had a solid quartet of vocal soloists with the rosy-voiced soprano Sandrine Piau, the vibrant and agile mezzo-soprano Tove Dahlberg in an auspicious New York debut, the sweet-voiced tenor Gregory Turay and the hardy bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi.

Mr. Langrée led a performance at once vigorous and sensitive. Mozart left this work nearly as incomplete as his Requiem. Mr. Langrée used an effective 1989 performing edition by Franz Beyer that reconciles all the restorations of the experts.

Wow! What a beautififully written review.

Posted by acapnews at August 29, 2005 10:11 PM