REVIEW: Poetry and Angels in the Green-Wood Catacombs
Above: Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs. Photo by Kevin Condon.
September 27, 2019
By Brian Taylor
Death of Classical, Andrew Ousley’s game-changing concert series, brings its creative gatherings for classical music lovers to Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery as The Angel’s Share. The performances take place in the 1851 Catacombs, a remarkable acoustic space, in addition to a mausoleum. Sounds of night trace our festive journey from a Vermont whiskey tasting and vittles, at the brownstone neo-Gothic entrance gate, to the ancient corridor of tombs where a Yamaha piano waits, outfitted with an intriguing mirror installation.
Pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin shared the task of performing Poetic and Religious Harmonies, Franz Liszt’s rarely heard cycle of piano pieces from 1847 inspired by poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine. Ninety minutes of music, pages thick with ink; it would be too much for one pianist to learn and process, especially given the limited mileage they would likely get from it. So, Tendler and Lin divided the evening into sensible groups, and traded turns at the keyboard. The audience has limited sightlines (the mirrors enhance the visuals), but the acoustics in the Catacombs are staggering. Every nuance of the pianist’s craft, such as the dampers’ felt caressing the strings, is audible in the back row. Pianissimos and fortissimos are true and resonant in the ear.
Both artists conveyed a committed and thoughtful vision of the movements they played. Tendler has a wholehearted, plush sound, and approaches Liszt’s score with sensitivity. These pieces tend to ramble, but Lin keeps them compelling, with a tight reign on phrases that want to linger and wander. She has a keen sense of voicing, and draws a focused, singing line from the instrument.
There’s a moment in Poetic and Religious Harmonies echoing Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata that forms a window into the piece’s moment in time between the individualistic, expressive innovations pioneered by Beethoven, and the wrought labor of Wagner, and even the sensuality of Debussy, that Liszt influenced and encouraged.
These introspective rhapsodies have a meandering, daydreaming quality that seems to capture a gazing-at-the-moon improvisation. It’s something of a miracle that Liszt was able to notate his ideas and preserve them as literature. But, there’s a reason that other Romantic pieces — Schumann’s Kreisleriana or Brahms’s character pieces — have become repertoire standards, while others, like these, fall through the cracks. There’s a feeling in these pontifications that we’re indulging the composer; yet, perhaps in his genius Liszt is pressing us to slow down, to meditate.
The Angel’s Share is a stroke of genius in New York’s current art music scene. A sense of place, none better than atop a haunted, venerated hill, looking out upon the sunset-drenched metropolis. An amazing acoustic and space. And an evergreen roster of today’s most captivating virtuosos. Andrew Ousley knows how to throw a party, and the guest of honor is music.