Weekend Music in NYC: New York Polyphony & R. Strauss’s “Feuersnot”

Quite a combination, this….  On Saturday evening, I battled through the snow to Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel to hear New York Polyphony present a splendid Christmas season program under the auspices of the Miller Theatre Early Music Series.  On Sunday afternoon, it was much less of a battle to get to Carnegie Hall and hear Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra present Richard Strauss’s early, and forgotten, opera, “Feuersnot.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous?

New York Polyphony is one of my favorite early music groups, and their recent BIS release has been nominated for a Grammy Award, a source of much excitement since they were nominated in the chamber music and small ensembles category, where they will be competing with some of the world’s leading musical groups.  Their speciality is Tudor-period English polyphonic music, but they venture round about that central core repertory, and also perform modern pieces written or arranged for them.  This Christmas-season program was wide-ranging, from early chant to some world premieres of music by Andrew Smith and John Scott.  From their core repertory came a motet by Thomas Tallis and a seasonal song by Richard Pygott, both of whom worked at various times at the Tudor Court in London.  There were also roughly contemporary works by Philippe Verdelot, Tomas Luis da Victoria, and Jacob Clemens ‘non Papa’.  For more contemporary tastes there were arrangements of early music by Geoffrey Williams and Alexander Craig.  Andrew Smith, a young British-born composer with whom the ensembles has cultivated an on-going relationship, had a Miller Theatre commission, Nowel: Arise and Wake, and earlier settings of Veni Emmanuel and Ave maris stella. 

As always with this group, everything was presented with extraordinary polish and care, but also with rhythmic excitement and great expressive force.  NYP is a real phenomenon, worth going out of your way to hear.  In this small church space, their voices combined with the reverberant acoustic to create a very special sound.  The members of NYP — Geoffrey Williams, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor, Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone, and Craig Phillips, bass — were all in excellent voice last night.

The American Symphony under Botstein’s leadership is devoted to exploration, seeking out infrequently performed works by great composers and the hidden gems by composers whose works are rarely encountered on our concert stages.  Strauss is hardly overlooked in the opera house, having written central repertory pieces like Salome, Elektra, and Rosenkavalier, and a string of other works that hover around the edges of the repertory.  Virtually forgotten is Feuersnot, a work of the composer’s early maturity, coming after some of his famous early symphonic poems but before he really hit his strike in the opera house with Salome.  The  opera’s plot is arrant nonsense and even a bit offensive from a modern perspective.  Set in medieval Germany, it proposes a young sorcery student, smitten with the mayor’s daughter, who through a spell casts the village into darkness until the prim young woman gives in to his advances and abandons her virginity.  The high point, dramatically, comes when the entire town is singing, at the top of their lungs, “Give it up, Diemut, give it up, give us our light back.”  And when she does, there is an outburst from chorus and orchestra like you wouldn’t believe.  (You had to be there….)

They put together a splendid cast, with Alfred Walker and Jacquelyn Wagner doing the honors as the leading characters of Kunrad, the obsessed young sorcery student, and Diemut, the mayor’s daughter.  The standouts in the supporting cast were Branch Fields, a sonorous bass singing the small but key role of an innkeeper, and Jeffrey Tucker, also a bass, as the mayor.  The Manhattan Girls Chorus gave an enthusiastic rendition of the children’s chorus part from memory, and the Collegiate Chorale Singers voiced the townsfolk with equal enthusiasm.  I’ve rarely heard the ASO play so beautifully, and Leon Bostein led a spirited performance.

But the piece, itself, is barely worth a listen.  Of course it is gorgeously orchestrated and harmonized, and the bits and pieces of quotes from Wagner are amusing, but overall there seemed to be little substance, and, deadly for an opera, little in the way of memorable tunes for the main characters to sing.  A long soliloquy for the sorcery student towards the end seemed to go on forever without saying anything memorable, despite Mr. Walker’s best efforts to animate it.  I think this would not really be stageable today, and if anybody were to put it on, who would go to see it?  But that’s why the ASO is valuable.  Reviving something like this for a listen gives us a chance to connect the dots between the young Strauss who is remembered for orchestra pieces like Don Juan and Tyl Eulenspiegel, and the mature Strauss revered for Rosenkavalier.  The legacy of the former and the foreshadowing of the later are clearly heard in this piece.  Somebody should put together a short orchestral suite….

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