IN: Reviews

Songs of Sorrow, Songs of Delight


Rufus Müller (file photo)

The British/German tenor Rufus Müller, along with Stephen Hammer, oboe, Phoebe Carrai, cello, and Libor Dudas, harpsichord, piano, and organ, gave an unusually moving faculty artist recital at Longy School of Music of Bard College Sunday night. Müller, an assistant professor at Bard College and head of the voice department, is renowned for his performances as the Evangelist in concerts recordings of the Bach Easter passions. He welcomed the invitation to perform this concert with Hammer and the other Longy musicians. Müller has a gift for connecting music and text, and projecting both with amazing vocal technique and emotional power.

His gifts were on full display last night. The program opened with “Not all my torments” by Henry Purcell, followed by two songs by Purcell’s patron and teacher, John Blow: “Oh that mine eyes would melt into a flood”, a lament to the crucified Jesus on the cross, and “The Queen’s Epicedium”, written on the death of Queen Elizabeth. In all three songs the magic was in the clarity of the text and the sweetness with which the singing matched both the text and the music. Müller was backed up by the expressive playing of Carrai and Dudas. This was especially noticeable in “The Queen…” where the first two verses and the last verse were based on a chaconne, which was played by Carrai with varied and intense expression each time it repeated. The grief in both the instruments and the voice was palpable, much like the chaconne-based arias of Dido in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”. The third verse, set to entirely different music, was a cry of grief. Blow’s influence on Purcell, who is better known today, was obvious throughout, both in the vocal style the chromaticism.

Hammer and Dudas followed with the Sonata in G major for Oboe and Organ, BWV 1032, by J.S. Bach. Dudas played expressively on a Baroque Oboe, more difficult to play than a modern oboe, and perhaps that explained his occasional lapses in tempo in the Vivace. The Largo e dolce was just that, and quiet lovely. The Allegro that followed was pleasingly cheerful.

The first half closed with the Cantata No. 72, Was gleicht dem Adel wahrer Christen ( A True Christian is like unto a Nobleman) from Telemann’s Harmonischer Gottesdienst, with Müller, Hammer (on Baroque oboe), and Dudas. Again the high point was the connection between music and text, and the impeccable German of Müller. The piece is very similar to what was to become a Bach Cantata, with two Arias interrupted by a Recitative. As in Bach the arias were basically trio sonatas composed over a beautifully elaborated ground bass. The oboe wove itself around the voice, illuminating the message, which was one of gladness.

The second half opened with Solo pour Hautbois, by Émile Paladilhe, a child prodigy and composer of a symphony, cantatas, motets, an opera, and over a hundred melodies. He is perhaps best known now for this piece, which Hammer played beautifully on a modern oboe, accompanied by Dudas on piano.

But the high point of the concert was the Ten Blake Songs composed in 1957 by Ralph Vaughan Williams for tenor voice and solo oboe. The poems are after Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, and contain in brief compass Joy, love, rage, and grief – somewhat mitigated by compassion and love of God. Blake has the power to move mountains in few words. His words were marvelously invoked by Müller, while Hammer expertly framed them with his oboe.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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