Mark Gresham | 4 NOV 2023
Thursday evening’s subscription concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus brought music director Nathalie Stutzmann back to the podium to lead a program of music by Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Antonín Dvořák.
The first half of the program featured the ASO Chorus in three choral-orchestral works by Johannes Brahms: Nänie, Op. 82, Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89 and Shicksalslied, Op. 54, all of which came together in a theme centered around “destiny” of a more somber demeanor.
Stutzmann handled the balance between chorus and orchestra well. The orchestra did not overpower the ASO Chorus, nor did they shrink too far in dynamics to avoid doing so.
Nänie is a Germanized form of the Latin naenia, with multiple meanings, including “a funeral song.” In this case, Nänie is a lamentation on the inevitability of death. Schiller’s poem obscurely references three episodes from Greek mythology, as the assumption was that the educated reader of his time would immediately recognize the stories. But you certainly can’t count on that today. Let’s sum it all up in the abstract as “the death of beauty.”
Also inspired by classical Greek influences, Gesang der Parzen (“Song of the Fates”) uses a text from Johann Goethe’s German-language reworking of the Greek tragedy by Euripides, Iphigeneia en Taurois. The rarely-performed piece is for a six-part chorus: one soprano, two alto, one tenor, and two bass parts.
For Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”), Brahms set a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. Along with Ein deutsches Requiem, it is one of Brahms’ best choral-orchestral works, and though not as famous, was the apex of the three Brahms choral works presented on Thursday. No wonder that in the final rehearsal, Stutzmann moved it to last in the sequence, as it had previously been programmed in the middle position, before Gesang der Parzen.
Despite moments of emotional swells, all three of these dark-shaded works came across as introverted in expression, perhaps smoldering embers under the ashes but not much fire. All three fade quietly away at their end.
It seems that, like both Robert Spano and Donald Runnciles before her, Stutzmann would like to make the sound of the ASO Chorus more “vocal” than the rhythmically-driven foundations laid by Robert Shaw, which brought it international admiration and repeated GRAMMY Award success. But even after multiple concerts with the ASO Chorus, it remains unclear whether Stutzmann has a vision for a “choral aesthetic” that goes beyond that nominal concept of “more vocal”— which her conducting has not always produced in any case. For a music director who began her professional career as a singer, you would think that would come to the forefront sooner, not later, if she has one. To date, it has not. In truth, not all orchestra conductors have one, but that should not be the case here.
The second half of the program was meat and potatoes: performances of The Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninoff and five selections from Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 46 and 72 Slavonic Dances.
Rachmaninoff drew his inspiration from a series of paintings and prints created by Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin for his 1909 tone poem, “Isle of the Dead.” In particular, it was a black-and-white print that left a profound impression on the composer, far more so than the paintings he would later have the opportunity to view. Böcklin himself did not explain these works, but Rachmaninoff’s composition adheres to a widely accepted interpretation: an allegory of the mythical boatman Charon, who ferries the souls of the deceased along the river Styx to the underworld. This ASO performance left the impression of an evocative film score, with ebbs and flows leading to a surging climax, eventually subsiding into a subdued conclusion (like all three of the Brahms choral works did).
The five selections from the Slavonic Dances were primarily from Dvořák’s Opus 46 (nos. 1, 2, 7, and 8), with only the penultimate dance coming from Opus 72 (No. 2 in E minor). As with the selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet two weeks ago, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances allows the opportunity to mix and match into a new limited sequence of movements. However, if you long to hear the entire Opus 46 and 72 as played with excellence by the ASO, check out the orchestra’s 1999 Telarc CD, Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, conducted by Yoel Levi (Telarc 80497).
Together, these Thursday night performances of Rachmaninoff and Dvořák were evidentiary of fine orchestral playing but not particularly inspired interpretations. Even so, it was an otherwise satisfactory second half of the concert. ■