October 24, 2006


Exploring Composers and Their God (FRED KIRSHNIT, October 24, 2006, NY Sun)

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra inaugurated their new season at Avery Fisher Hall with a concert designed to demonstrate the relationships between five diverse composers and their God. The program, titled "The Art of the Psalm," was shaped as if it were a major choral symphony in five movements, something Gustav Mahler might have conceived.

The event began with the devout Catholic Anton Bruckner and his setting of Psalm 150, the last sacred work written by the Linz master. Bruckner would devote his last five years to imbedding God into his final two instrumental symphonies — the 8th and the unfinished 9th. This setting is a glorious Allelujah and, though I detected some shrillness in the higher voices of the Concert Chorale of New York, this was still a powerful performance.

Those same female voices carried the next piece, the American premiere of Franz Schreker's Psalm 116. Schreker was born and raised a Catholic, but was ethnically Jewish, a fact not unnoticed by the Nazi regime. [...]

Most of this music was unfamiliar, as befits an ASO presentation, but there was one famous melody to be heard. What seemed to be an orchestration of that familiar Rachmaninoff Prelude in C sharp minor turned out to be the opening of the setting of Franz Liszt's Psalm 13. This was originally envisioned as a full-blown operatic scene, but all of the splendid material went to one tenor soloist when the work was published. [...]

Alexander von Zemlinsky was certainly the most ecumenical of these five composers. His father was a Catholic who converted to Judaism, while the composer himself eventually became a Protestant (and added the "von" to his name to assist in his assimilation). His setting of the familiar 23rd psalm was lovely, filled with sounds of nature and expressionistic tone painting — the dissonant muted horns at the word "enemies" being a prime example. Here the orchestra was superb in changing colors quickly and meaningfully.

But the best performance of the afternoon was the triumphant reading of Max Reger's mighty setting of Psalm 100. Americans who know this music have most likely only experienced it in its "cleansed" version by Paul Hindemith, who unilaterally decided that Reger's dense harmonies were too difficult to follow. But they are not at all murky in the right conductor's hands, as Mr. Botstein demonstrated this day, in what turned out to be the American premiere of the original version of the piece.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 24, 2006 8:54 AM
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