This weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra presents one of its more exciting programs of the season: A star soloist, Joshua Bell, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” I went primarily to hear the latter, a 1946 work written to mark the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and based on a poem by Walt Whitman that honored the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is subtitled “A Requiem ‘For those we love,’” and much of its power comes from the conflation of personal and epic loss, both in Whitman’s poem, and in Hindemith’s somber yet grand score, which must certainly have been a response to the devastation of World War II as well as Roosevelt’s demise.
Given the honors heaped on it when it was new, and its lingering reputation as one of the great, neglected works of 20th-century choral music, it is remarkable that these are its first performances by the NSO. I got to know the score a few years when researching an article on Hindemith’s unjustly neglected operas (seek out a fine DVD of Cardillac and a very good recording of his Harmony of the World, based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler). Digging into Hindemith at first felt like work, such is his reputation for diligence, craftsmanship and lack of imagination. But he is in fact an immensely rewarding and charismatic composer, and his imagination shouldn’t be slighted.
“When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” isn’t a perfect piece, but its fundamental flaw is inextricable from its essential power. Hindemith’s choice of poem, a long, inexhaustible, meandering paean to life, death, nature and love, was both inspired and ridiculous. The sheer quantity of text, its volubility, its torrential repetitions and divagations, created enormous compositional challenges, and Hindemith responded with a fluid, almost incantatory line that expands and contracts as necessary, with hypnotic effect. The fitting of text within a free but regular metrical musical line is a wonder. But it also has the effect of distracting our attention from Whitman’s words, which just seem to keep coming. And that’s where the choice of the poem seems perhaps a bit willful, and wrongheaded.
And yet the hour-long oratorio is filled with powerful episodes (the choral rendition of the seventh movement was a particular thrill) and it leaves one with a strongly visual sense of the poem: The darkened fields, the passage of the coffin through the landscape, the swamps and cityscapes, and finally “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Worlds collide—Hindemith’s musical language steeped in the eclectic vocabularies of early 20th century European style, with a substantial concession to American popular taste, and Whitman’s 19th-century transcendental ecstasies, which reach mystical heights—and somehow, by the end, they cohere. A flawed, but thrilling piece.
The soloists were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne, the same team that sang the solo roles in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the NSO two years ago. They are both powerful singers and both gave exceptional accounts of the musical line. But Goerne’s diction was almost indecipherable throughout. Hindemith doesn’t make it easy for the soloist, but Goerne didn’t rise to the occasion either. It was mush. And when the chorus, the Choral Arts Society which was in excellent form, is more easily understood than the lead soloist—well, that’s a problem.
But one left grateful for the effort from all involved: NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who championed the piece, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. The piece deserves more hearings, and one hopes it won’t be another 70 years before the NSO programs it again.
The concerto performance was more enthusiastically received by the audience. Bell plays with great rhythmic clarity and force, every note cleanly placed with a pulse that is relentlessly forward moving. The virtuosity is dazzling, the phrasing impeccable, but sometimes it feels too well-suited to the current taste, the reigning cultural obsession with speed and breathlessness. I would have preferred a bit more air and reflection in the second movement, a bit more unhurried sweetness. But Bell has mastered the audience-friendly oratorical style that never allows the attention to wander, and it works for him. It clearly works for his fans, too. I’ll recuperate with Menuhin’s 1960 recording.