Hallelujah: Handel and Beethoven Choral Works in New York

Handel, Beethoven: Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola, Paul Appelby (tenor), Rachel Rosales (soprano), Charles Perry Sprawls  (bass), Nancianne Parrella (organ), Jorge Ávila (violin), Arthur Fiacco (cello), Kent Tritle (conductor), Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York, 25.5.2011 (SSM)

Concerto in G Minor for Organ and Orchestra, HWV 291, Op.4/3
Handel: Foundling Hospital Anthem : “Blessed are they that considereth the poor”
Beethoven: Christum am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives ), Op.85

In a city as large as New York that offers music of all kinds every evening of the year, it is easy to forget how active churches are in adding to its musical life. Last night’s concert followed another substantial one performed at a church just one block north the week before. Some churches present their own choruses and orchestras, while others serve as venues for outside groups. For audience members who are not church goers, it is often a visual as well as auditory treat. The secular façade of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola hides a late-nineteenth century mix of Baroque and Roman basilica elements with a long nave and an interior paved partly with pinkish marble. It also houses the largest track organ in New York City, with over five thousand pipes.

The organ, rising above the back choral loft, has a magnificent sound. Handel played these organ concerti, though, on a small positive organ with registrations probably limited only to open and stopped flute ranks. If Handel had played the Concerto in G minor on an organ such as this one, the sounds of other instruments would have been drowned out. This brief opening piece was played on the organ with solo violin and cello, and without amplification this reduction of Handel’s score to a trio would have been totally covered by the organ. Here the result of amplification, plus not being able to see the players in the chorus loft, made it feel like listening to a recording of the work rather than a live performance.

The following composition, The Foundling Hospital Anthem, was performed in its original version. There also exists a revised one, and I wish the choice here had been to do the earlier version. Handel’s revision added one aria and modified some of the choruses so that they were sung by soloists instead. These changes redefined the whole emotional tenor (ahem!) of the work. The revised score opens with a solo aria by the tenor introduced by violins played in unison. The soloists take over some of the chorus’s parts such as in the line beginning “O God, who from the suckling mouth,” sung in the revised version by an alto. Handel also added the delightful and winsome aria “The people will tell of their wisdom,” an angelic give-and-take between two sopranos. The first two choruses were not written specifically for this anthem, but were borrowed instead from his earlier work, the “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.” By making these revisions, Handel was looking to change the elegiac mood into something more upbeat.

This being said, the performance of this original version was a solid one. The conductor Kent Tritle knew exactly what he wanted from his musicians and singers. The surprise for the audience was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah in its original placement as the final chorus of the anthem. I wondered if it would have been appropriate for the audience to have stood up during its performance!

The major work on the program was Beethoven’s Christum am Ölberge. While this is Beethoven’s only oratorio, he wrote many other pieces for chorus and/or soloist and orchestra. Often these works, including the one performed tonight, were quickly written to meet a specific event; the accession or death of an Emperor, or a political event such as the Congress of Vienna are bombastic with cloying texts. Tonight’s oratorio stands out in quality with better written works for chorus and orchestra such as the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra and the larger Missa Solemnis. Despite the sacred tradition the recitatives, arias and choruses are operatic in scope. Paul Appleby, the tenor, had just the right voice for the role of Jesus, presenting a powerful, yet emotionally fragile figure. I might have wished he were a little more in sync with the other members in regard to when he was required to be seated, but this didn’t impact his fine singing. Rachel Rosales didn’t have the sweetest voice and strained a bit in some of Beethoven’s difficult arias, but still was able to give a strong performance. The bass Charles Perry Sprawls had too short a role to comment on his voice. Both the orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Mr. Tritle, played flawlessly and knew how to deal with the Church’s acoustics so as not to have one group overpower the other.

Stan Metzger