Commemorating the centenaries of the World War One Armistice and the independence of the Republic of Poland, the Oratorio Society of New York and its long-time conductor Kent Tritle included masterworks by Karol Szymanowski and Henryk Górecki, followed by Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem.
Górecki’s a cappella Euntes ibant et flebant (He goeth forth and weepeth) is from 1972, the text taken from the sixth verses of Psalms 125 and 94. A three-note melodic phrase (D-E-F) haunts the work. A hushed opening combines a melodic line with overtones of medieval chant generated from overlapping sustained tones that linger after a phrase of text is completed, creating a halo-like effect. During the central section, a sudden outburst brings on an assertive plea for relief from suffering. The Oratorio Society Chorus offered a splendid reading of this obscure work, especially impressive during the soft, somber segments.
Next came one of the supreme works of liturgical music, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, written between 1925 and 1926, more akin to a symphonic song-cycle. Folk music permeates the main theme, which unifies the work, focusing on maternal suffering at the loss of a loved one. Its highly emotional power is wrought through simple melodic, harmonic and textural means and evenly spaced rhythms. Despite the suffering and anguish expressed in the work, its rapturous, soulful climax dies away in a typically Slavic manner at the conclusion.
Susanna Phillips was most impressive. She has a pure, sweet, melodious voice with a secure top range and sang with warmth and tenderness as well as ardent expression. Ewa Płonka has a youthful voice that has promise that might be fulfilled if developed properly. Their duets were essentially well presented. Jesse Blumberg acquitted himself well within the limits of his rather modest vocal powers, but was inaudible during tutti passages. Tritle gave a beautifully phrased performance, maintaining an austere atmosphere during the softer sections and tempering the dynamic level. Consequently there was insufficient contrast between the somber moments and the more vociferous segments. Textual clarity was lacking when the full chorus participated, despite its ample size or possibly because of it. But in spite of these limitations, Tritle’s reading of the softer passages generated a heavenly glow that comported well with the music’s aesthetic character, although the more dramatic moments were too restrained.
Thematic unity is also a structural fundamental to Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, which uses poems mostly by Walt Whitman (including Dirge for Two Veterans) and one by John Bright (The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land). The Finale combines several biblical passages in a stirring conclusion. Each movement has its own particular dramatic character, while the work as a whole frames the principle of conflict and resolution that ultimately offers a prayer for world peace. Phillips’s weeping cries of “dona nobis pacem” were simply exquisite. Tritle imbued ‘Beat! beat! drums!’, with sufficient force to emphasize its strong anti-war sentiment, and his direct reading of the ‘Reconciliation’ movement provided just the right background for Blumberg’s rendition, sung like a tender lullaby. The solemn funeral march that opens ‘Dirge’ created a somber mood, choral singing was clearer and more incisive, and the brass excelled. As the work proceeded to a triumphant conclusion, as if celebrating the achievement of a goal yet to be attained, Tritle energized the pace and let loose the forces to stirring effect.