Friday, January 31, 2014

Voices of Ascension - Beethoven & Brahms - 01/30/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Dennis Keene
Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Anna Shelest: Pianist
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Martha Guth: Soprano
Richard Zeller: Baritone
Anna Shelest: Pianist
Arlene Shrut: Pianist

Although the beginning of the year had been so far - and by sheer chance - exclusively dedicated to contemporary classical music, my momentum was gloriously broken last night in the beautiful Church of the Ascension right down Fifth Avenue in the company of the Voices of Ascension, two musical giants and two of their most arresting achievements, among so many others. Beethoven's Sonata 32 was his last piano sonata and comprises only two movements. But then again, what was there left to say? And Brahms' popular Requiem easily stands out in a crowded fields thanks to its irresistible non-liturgical human touch.
Although I had willingly bought it, I was dearly hoping that my no-view seat would not be a crappy-sound seat. Fortunately, it was not. My view of the choir was predictably blocked by the pulpit, but while the sound was not coming to our section completely intact, it was not noticeably distorted either. So with all of this established, it was finally time to be in with the old and out with the new for one evening.

A little bit of a stripped down version of his majestic Symphony No. 9, what with the life struggle leading to all-encompassing transcendence, Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 has the piano do all the work. And what work! The composition is technically daunting, and yet both movements conclude with spiritual serenity. Throw in a little jazzy tune for the sheer heck of it (Seriously), and you have a brilliantly self-contained masterpiece. Anna Shelest did not let the challenge intimidate her and played with plenty of aplomb and vitality.
Interestingly inspired by the German Luther Bible instead of the more traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem is also well-known and much loved for its compelling emotional power. Simply accompanied by a most capable piano four-hands, the voices opened softly, all understanding and comfort for the mourners. Many memorable episodes followed, like the epic third movement, with its extraordinary combination of baritone and chorus, quietness and intensity, and the short fourth one, in which the famous "lovely dwelling place" sounded in fact downright inviting. The mysterious and dramatic sixth movement was another terrific moment for baritone and chorus, whose culmination was a thrilling Death- and Hell-defying victory. Every time he appeared, Richard Zeller displayed a remarkable voice and a strong presence. Soprano Martha Guth progressively gained confidence in the fifth movement, the most intrinsically intimate and the most sublimely sad. It all ended up with more soothing singing and a peaceful closure, back to the beginning.

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