Evocations: The Music of Hugo Distler, Opus 12
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., June 14, 2002
Evocations: The Music of Hugo Distler, Opus 12 Divine SoundsTarrytown Baptist Church,
The presentation of a single composer's works in an evening offers performers and audiences the opportunity to arrive at a certain familiarity with exceptional and often challenging music. In the choral settings of early 20th-century German composer Hugo Distler, particularly his Opus 12, can be heard some of the most spiritually uplifting, and terrifying, music -- music that offended the Nazis' cultural sensibilities and nearly was proclaimed "Degenerate Art," yet that hearkened back to medieval forms and carried a liturgical beauty and social resonance that transcended its time.
Distler was an immaculate craftsman keenly aware that words, and the layers of meanings words possess, were as important as the music to which he set them. One piece, "Wach auf du Deutsches Reich" ("Wake up, you German Nation") -- a rarely heard, Lutheran jab at a slumbering German population to allow the entry of "the divine light and Christ's word" in the face of the Devil's dark lure -- includes lines that serve as a warning to the population not to ignore the threats of Nazism: "Wake up German nation good, protect your sheep from the wolf," and "beware that [the light of the Gospels] be not obscured by the darkness that the Antichrist sends." The song is not all fire and brimstone, however: Distler plays with the delivery of this dire double message in his musical call to "Wach auf," where, in the latter part of the song, that demand echoes in voices like popcorn playing up and down the scales. Here, the versatility of the Conspirare Choir was best on display. Conductor Craig Hella Johnson has assembled a mighty group of singers capable of extraordinary power and moments so delicate and sweet, you forget there are 32 people singing them.
Opus 12, a series of sacred choral works, exults in Christ's sacrifice for man, and enjoins the listener to give himself to the mercy of God. Perhaps the most compelling performance of the evening was the first half's closing number, "Fürwahr, er Trug Unsere Krankheit" ("Truly He Bore our Affliction") performed with haunting gravity. The chorale that suffixed the work, "Ein lümmlein get" ("A lamb goes forth") marked a stunning if subtle mood shift, from tomb-like weightiness to something smoother and almost optimistic, with the choir sliding comfortably from somber drama to a glimpse of light on the horizon.
The concert's second half provided a sequence of absolutely divine sounds, and was the stronger of the two halves of the evening. A quick diversion to the rolling voices of Opus 10, Christmas settings of "Es ist ein Ros' Enstprugen" ("Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"), made for easier listening than the Opus 12 works, with mezzo-soprano soloist Janet Carlsen Campbell standing out as a lovely undercurrent to the cascading voices in "O Saviour, Hear our Pleading." The return to the breathtaking works from Opus 12 included gorgeous performances of "Ich Wollt, das ich Daheime wür" ("I Wish That I Were at Home") and "In der Welt Habt ihr Angst" ("In This World You Have Suffering"), with the finale the fervent "Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied!" ("Sing to the Lord a New Song"). The drama of voices building through the second half was as inspirational an example of Distler's art as of Hella Johnson's programming prowess.
Sadly, the overtly dramatic core of Opus 12, "Totentanz" ("Dance of the Dead"), failed to live up to its promise. This first-half work was the only one sung and spoken in English. In it, choral pieces are interspersed with spoken duets between death and the newly dead, most of whom were not prepared to die. This piece suffered from the distraction of a speaker moving among the audience during the choral segments and seemed aimed toward the overtly simple. With a composer as scintillatingly dramatic as Distler, this was unnecessary; with a chorus of voices such as these, why let attentions slip from the dais, even for a moment?