… schwachen Stimmen is a famous aria from Bach’s Cantata BWV 36, but could also be a summary of my impressions on Helmut Rilling’s performance of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung in the Carnegie Hall. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend Rilling’s annual concert in the same hall with Kathy Saltzman Romey’s “festival chorus” and was positively impressed by the outstanding quality of the choral singing - registers are well balanced, articulation and pronunciation are crystal-clear , not to mention that the tonal quality is very pleasant. For a pick-up team, this is no mean accomplishment.
An improvement in this year’s performance is the playing from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s – although the brass instruments are still below standard, the strings offered glittering, flexible sounds that not only beguiled the ears, but also allowed absolute transparence, even when the complete forces were in use.
However, the level of fervour and concentration achieved in last year’s Matthäus Passion was reduced this time to mere correctness. The conductor has a keen ear for orchestral effects – the muted tone in the Representation of Chaos and its dramatic transition for the appearance of light was exquisitely handled, but elsewhere the proceedings simply lacked fire, in spite of flowing tempi and stylistic awareness.
A great share of responsibility for the lukewarm results belongs to the soloists, I am afraid. As I observed last year, the Carnegie Hall is not exactly the perfect venue for baroque and classical music out of the context of a larger-scaled performance. And larger-scale performances require larger-scale singers. Alas, that was not the case here.
To start with, I read with concern that Susan Gritton would be replaced by Heidi Grant Murphy, a singer who never failed to disappoint me in any of her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House. Truth be said, I could say that tonight I can understand a tiny bit more of the reasons why she was allowed an international career in the first place. The soprano solos were sung with good taste, grace, intelligence and a great deal of flexibility, but the tone is grainy, the volume is extremely limited, beauty is basically reserved to floating mezza voce and the least increase in volume brought about a tense, unfocused quality.
A last-minute replacement to the reliable James Taylor, Nicholas Phan must have nerves of steel or a long experience with the piece. As much as the soprano, Phan has a small voice with very little carrying power in the extreme low register, but other than this, his tenor is dulcet, ductile and flexible enough. He too sang with elegance and sense of style. In a more intimate hall, he would have been entirely satisfying. Last but not least, bass-baritone Nathan Berg has a somewhat more substantial voice and phrases with the variety of a Lieder singer. He too would benefit, though, from a venue where he could simply be more resonant.