HAWKINS "Goin' Up Yonder" (Measha Brueggergosman, soprano a cappella)
R. STRAUSS "Im Abendrot" from Four Last Songs (Measha Brueggergosman, soprano)
[Recorded June 2, 2019]
KEVIN LAU Dark Angels Suite
[Recorded October 3, 2019]
R. STRAUSS Death and Transfiguration
[Recorded March 31, 2016]
This week's Home Delivery concert recalls our 50th Anniversary season, is abundant with Canadian talent, and features the searingly poignant music of Richard Strauss.
In October 2019, we performed the Dark Angels Suite by Canadian composer Kevin Lau which was commissioned and recorded as part of Encount3rs for NACO and the National Ballet of Canada. Kevin’s music expresses love and violence, all within a delicate, fragile frame, as he explores the struggle to find one’s place in the world. The Suite fits together much like a concerto for orchestra, and Principal Cello Rachel Mercer receives the biggest feature, in a heart-wrenching, elegiac solo.
The NAC 50th anniversary concert on June 2, 2019, included a special moment with Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman. Her singular, powerful voice rang through the hall, first in a beautiful solo spiritual, and then with the Orchestra in one of Strauss’s exquisite Four Last Songs, “Im Abendrot”, or “In the glow of evening”. Measha’s voice soars gently above the orchestra, as she reflects dreamily about life and death.
And with that music still ringing in our ears, hear the Orchestra perform Tod und Verklärung or Death and Transfiguration, from a March 2016 concert. In this 1889 tone poem for large orchestra, written when he was only 24 years old, Strauss artfully depicts the physiological and psychological states of a dying man. In the final bars, as his soul leaves the body, we hear the “Transfiguration” theme in its fullest beauty, its celestial ascent represented by two harps. Intriguingly, on Strauss’s own deathbed in 1949, he remarked that “dying is just the way I’d composed it in Tod und Verklärung."
In composing Death and Transfiguration at the tender age of 24, Richard Strauss demonstrated his uncannily preternatural gift for capturing the most profound emotions in music. So prescient was his vision, that later, he self-quoted a phrase from this piece in response to the line ‘Is this perhaps death’ in his very last work. That song, ‘Im Abendrot’ (“In the glow of Evening”), written a year before Strauss’s passing at age 85, is also offered in this digital concert, brought to life by the extraordinary voice of Measha Brueggergosman.
Death and Transfiguration is beautifully simple in its four-part construction.
The strings begin. Gentle, insistent, the sound of a beating heart in a lonely, darkened room. This heart, its rhythm uncomfortable, its energy waning, is that of our protagonist: an ageing artist, recumbent on his deathbed. His weary, heavy breathing punctuates the near silence before the harp leads us into melancholic wisps of melody on the flute and clarinet. A brief sequence of rising harmonic modulations hints at a regathering life force only for us to land firmly in the minor, with an exquisite oboe line leading a passage of doleful reminiscence presented by woodwind and string soloists. As these memories ebb away, our artist falls back into fatigue, the quiet and loneliness return. Further flashes of reminiscence, underscored by uneasy, apprehensive strings, serve as a premonition of what is to come. His heartbeat returns, more present now, more uneven, voiced not the by the strings but by the brass…
…And then a kick in the gut as his body seizes and fever takes hold. Timpani punch, low strings and woodwinds stretch and distort, high strings scream in panic as the artist convulses. Ever forward the tempo is driven as the violence of his illness consumes him, the gently insistent heartbeats of the opening transformed into punishing racing beats in the brass and timpani. At the high point of this fever, a sudden turning of the tide: this was not his final moment…
…The oboe, whose voice led the earlier reminiscence, returns as the mood calms. Over a trickling brook of string accompaniment, the artist looks back at his life. Flute lines trace his earliest, innocent youth, coloured by a hint of violin melancholy. A modulation heralds the entry of the horns, depicting for the first time a young, confident man taking his place in the world. This confidence, embodied by a virtuosic flourish in the violins, grows bar by bar, punctuated only by the insistent return of the heartbeat motif, dragging us constantly back to grim reality. But again the memories take hold, and in one of the most gloriously uplifting passages in all music, once more he envisions his youthful vigour, blossoming, into his first love. We barely reach this first peak before darkness again takes hold, his illness fighting to quash these precious moments with baleful oboe and viola lines. The tussle between hope and despair continues as a second peak of optimism is subdued. The intensity grows, motifs overlaid in ever more abundance - here the heartbeat, the gut-wrenching fever; there the youth, the vitality - until ultimately, a glowing memory of life lived to its fullest, of true love and joy, wins through. The artist, spent from this final act, falls back, chromaticism charting his diminishing power. The heartbeat, the heavy breaths return. Silence, isolation consume him. A final violent fever attacks, the heart convulses as life is wrenched away, a tam-tam strike heralding the moment he slips from one world to the next…
…And it is with that tam-tam that the extraordinary, all-enveloping transfiguration begins. Unfolding over several minutes the music depicts the tender, inexorable motion of the artist’s soul rising heavenward until, with warm-hearted inevitability, it pauses on a single high-lying violin note. The gates of heaven, the pivotal moment. Acceptance means stepping across the threshold, but also bidding farewell to that rich and joyful life of his memories. The heroic love theme returns, transfigured, as the artist looks back hesitantly, melancholically, then steps forward into the light with gathering belief. This journey through life and death culminates in one of the great orchestral cadences in the repertoire, easing into a glowingly serene C-major as the artist finally finds peace.
I hope that you enjoy this masterpiece!