HAMBURG - When you celebrate your hometown hero's birth 175 times, you
will assuredly run out of standards, and start digging for the "lesser
known." And so, on this Easter Sunday morning, the Hamburger Ostertone
concert offered Johannes Brahms' 1863 "Rinaldo," the 30-year-old composer's
incomplete entry for a choral competition. Brahms finished and presented
the 35-minute cantata in 1869 (it's numbered as Opus 50), but it never
What's interesting about this how-Beethoven-might-have-written-Baroque-music
piece is that if Brahms ever seriously ventured into opera, chances are
it would have a sound similar to this - uniformly heroic-loud with an
unconvincingly lyric fringe. Apt descriptions include: "endless shades
of gray," "excessive Baroque conceits," and "lack of sensuality."
The story, of course, is the episode from Tasso's 1580 "Gerusalemme
Liberata," having to do with the knight and the witch Armida (to whom
Handel did justice in a century an a half before Brahms' treatment, to
be followed by Haydn and Rossini in favoring the lady over the knight).
The cantata is written for tenor and men's chorus, performed this morning
in Laeiszhalle by Johan Botha and members of the Staatsoper Hamburg
Chorus. A small configuration of Philharmoniker Hamburg was conducted
vigorously by Simone Young.
Botha, possibly the most lyrical of heldentenors today (or vice versa),
had his head deep into the score, giving the impression of winging the
part. I have always been impressed by Botha and always had an unspecified
misgiving about him; this morning, clarity came in that matter. This
wonderful, forward-set voice is as plain-vanilla tenor as a voice can
get, quite without color or personality.
The chorus sounded as if the men were somewhere backstage, occupied
with other matters. My companion, a choral director, pointed out that
the Hamburg singers have a "professional sound, not like American opera
choruses," but as for me, give me passion and a presence of sound, to
hell with whatever that "professional sound" may be.
Chances are you may not be bothered again (soon or ever) in the matter
of "Rinaldo," so here is a bit of the text to give an idea of the piece:
"A spacious garden... where not a light leaf shakes or zephyr strays,
But breathes out love; here, on the fresh green ground in his fair lady's
lap the warrior will be found. But when th'Enchantress quits her darling's
side, And elsewhere turns her footsteps from the place, Then, with the
diamond shield which I provide, Step forth and so present it for a space
That he may start at his reflected face, His wanton weeds and ornaments
survey: The sight whereof, and sense of his disgrace, Shall make him
blush, and without delay From his unworthy love indignant break away."
(Here, it was sung in German, but that didn't help much.)
The concert also included homage to Messiaen (a century-old birthday
boy) in the form of Messiaen disciple Gerard "Modulations for 33 Musicians,"
a piece far more cacophonic and disjointed than anything Messiaen ever
wrote. Young presented a long introduction to the piece, arguing for
its artistic merit. The performance itself attempted to do the same,
although conductor and orchestra focused first and foremost on the score.
Just a long plane ride away from a concert in San Francisco with Gustavo
Dudamel, one wonders if having total mastery of the score might not be
a prerequisite of any performance.
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