The Treasure Hunt: BRAHMS ALTO RHAPSODY
©2006 Mark B. Anstendig
This work poses a basic question for all performing art: how does one address God?
In the last section of the Alto Rhapsody, the singer directly addresses God Himself, first with a question, then with an entreaty. The question, "Do You have a tone in Your psalter that can reach the misanthrope who, embittered by rejection and lack of love, is torn by a hatred for the rest of mankind?" The entreaty, "If so, revive his heart! Open his clouded eyes to the thousand fountains near the thirsting one in the wilderness."
How does one question and entreat God? Heroically? Demandingly? With a "manly" attitude? Philosophically? Does one "stand up to" God? In other words, what tone of voice should the singer adopt?
On the recordings I have heard, only one singer, Marian Anderson, achieves the only really defensible manner of address: that of a completely innocent, supplicating child, addressing the Almighty Father with all the gentleness, sweetness, and love with which one would oneself want to be addressed by Him. This is no mean accomplishment. It is the tone of a person who has completely resolved and is secure in her relationship with God; one who is conversant and comfortable with Him and is in no need of adopting any postures in relation to the Almighty. One can almost picture her curled up in God's loving arms, returning His love (why should not God also want to be truly and exquisitely loved by His creation?), and innocently asking a completely ingenuous question.
Conceiving of and understanding the correctness of this approach is far from being able to achieve it. It is especially difficult to transform the character of one's voice into such sweetness after the dramatic delivery necessary in the first part of the rhapsody.
In this recording, one truly finds out why Anderson's was the "voice of the century". It is not the magnificent voice alone which is so enormous, full-sounding, and perfectly produced that even a quietly contained tone overwhelms the listener. It is the coupling of such a voice with the expressive quality of a soul who has truly been through all the possibilities of human experience, including the negative ones, has digested and understood the resulting expressions, and incorporated them into her whole being. On this record, Anderson does not make a single sound that is not overwhelmingly expressive of a distinct emotion. The effect this performance can have on one is almost impossible to describe, but those who want to experience it should begin searching for this out-of-print recording or plead with RCA to re-release it. I know of nothing else quite like it.
As with any recorded performance of great emotional delicacy, it is particularly important that it be equalized and played through good-quality equipment. The equalization should begin typically with a large cut at approximately 2000-4000 Hz and with progressively smaller cuts at 600-1000 Hz and 125-160 Hz. But this older record has an exaggerated high and low end that will need more cut than usual in the upper frequencies and probably in the bass. Some added imbalance in the middle register will probably also demand some additional cut around and below 600 Hz, probably down to about 250-315 Hz.
Paraphrased translations by Mark Anstendig.
Brahms Alto Rhapsody
Fritz Reiner conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra RCA Victor LM 1146
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