Manager / Director:
George Frederick Bristow
Price: $2; $3 and $4, reserved
10 March 2023
Biographical sketch of the contralto (reprinted from the Portland Advertiser; also reprinted Dwight's Journal of Music 12/17/70, p. 368).
“Owing to the illness of Miss Pauline Canissa, her place will be filled by Miss Henrietta Beebe, an admired local singer.”
“The great and unqualified success of Mlle. Nilsson last night at Steinway Hall in ‘The Messiah’ satisfied any doubting Thomas (if such there could be) of the justness of her claim to be called one of the first artists in the world. When her beautiful, pure voice was first heard in the simple announcement of the coming of the promised Redeemer, ‘There were shepherds,’ there was an angelic expression in the clear, crystal-like tones. In ‘Rejoice greatly,’ ‘How beautiful are the feet,’ and the immortal ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ she sang with a fervor, religious sentiment and genuine feeling such as we have never heard before in this hall, even when Parepa-Rosa undertook the same task. We can unhesitatingly say that we have a much higher opinion of Nilsson’s abilities after hearing her in oratorio than we had from her concert performances. Not a note of the inspired music was lost, and in no particular did she fail to invest it with all the fervor and expression it demanded. ‘The Messiah’ had been always a source of discomfort to us who have been obliged for years past to listen to it at Steinway Hall, given by the Harmonic Society, under the leadership of Mr. Ritter. We cannot call to mind a single acceptable performance by this society. Therefore it was with unfeigned pleasure we listened last night to a truly admirable performance given by a finely-trained and evenly-balanced chorus from the Mendelssohn Union, and a capital orchestra, under one of the best conductors in America, George Bristow. The nicest shading of expression from pianissimo to fortissimo, a thing unheard of before in oratorio choruses here, and the most perfect accord and unanimity through the most intricate passages marked the performance. The tempo, which with the Harmonic, was funereal and dreary, was given by Bristow with such attention to the spirit of the music that every line of beauty in those incomparable tone pictures stood out with distinctness and life-like fidelity. Miss Cary’s exquisite contralto voice was heard to even greater advantage than in her concert selections. Her first air, ‘O Thou that tellest glad tidings,’ did not receive the warmth of feeling and fervor it demanded, but she made ample amends in ‘He was despised.’ Mr. Whitney fully sustained his reputation of being the best oratorio basso in America, and Miss Beebe and Mr. Simpson contributed not a little to the general excellence of the performance.”
“Before a large, a cold and a critical audience, Miss Nilsson last night at Steinway Hall made her first appearance in oratorio. She contented herself with but a comparatively small proportion of the soprano music, giving to Miss Beebe the graceful aria, ‘He shall feed his flock,’ and several of the recitatives, and omitting altogether the brief but very beautiful quartets in the last part of the oratorio.
“In the recitative beginning ‘There were shepherds,’ with its exquisite accompaniment, Miss Nilsson sang her first oratorio note. There was nothing in the rendering of these passages to call for special comment. The pure, melodious voice was heard as pure as ever, but that was all. In the brilliant aria, ‘Rejoice greatly,’ there was, it must be confessed, a lack of brilliancy. There was grace and there was fluency; but there was no attack, no vim. It was the caroling of a bird on the tree rather than that outburst of sudden joy which the great subject it depicts inevitably demands. Without this sentiment felt and expressed by the singer, the aria loses its dignity and becomes a mere bravura song—a sequence of almost commonplace roulades. Miss Nilsson’s rendering of it was sweet and pleasant, but not great; and the applause it received was meagre.
“In the aria ‘How beautiful are the feet,’ there was everything that could be desired. Delicacy, sentiment and grace and exquisite vocalization invested the music with a new beauty. The enunciation of the words was distinct, and the vocalist revealed the most delightful qualities of her voice. The enthusiasm here became very great. It was equally marked after the great test aria, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ for which Miss Nilsson seemed to have especially reserved herself. In this she threw much sentiment, though avoiding mere sentimentality. She adhered more closely to the usual traditions of oratorio singing than had been expected by those who had considered her interpretation of ‘Angels ever bright’ as her usual method of interpreting Handel. The general verdict in regard to her oratorio singing is that it is invested with exquisite grace and delicacy, which does not necessarily descend into mere prettiness, but at the same time is somewhat lacking in the more massive dignity which is deemed characteristic of the best oratorio singers. This verdict might have been as well rendered before she sang as after. It was the essential result of her mental cast and her vocal attributes.
“Excellent support was given to the leading vocalist. Miss Cary sang the music allotted to her with ease and neatness, and in ‘He was despised’ her rich and unusually uniform voice appeared to the best advantage. In ‘Thou that tellest’ there might have been greater vigor. Miss Cary was cordially received, and won genuine applause. Mr. Simpson was not in his best voice, but gave the plaintive air, ‘Behold and see,’ with much feeling. Mr. Whitney, the Boston basso, sang superbly, and was one of the features of the evening.
“The orchestra, under the direction of Mr. Bristow, was but an indifferent one. The chorus, composed of members of the Mendelssohn Union was evenly balanced and sang well together. In the chorus, ‘All we like sheep,’ they were preeminently successful, and in the more familiar numbers, such as the ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Thou that tellest,’ they were, of course, entirely at home. In ‘Unto us a child is born,‘ great attention was paid to the production of pianissimo effects, and the voices in the difficult passages of this elaborate chorus moved together with thorough precision. The limited number of the chorus alone prevented the contrast on the forte passage, ‘Wonderful! Counsellor!’ from being most effective. There is no doubt that the Mendelssohn Society has rehearsed these choruses carefully, and has done itself much credit by the public performance.”
Oratorio performances in New York now seem to need the impulse of a vocal star of unusual magnitude; references to Mlle. Nilsson’s performance last night.
“It is easy to foresee that a very large audience would gather to hear Miss Nilsson sing for the first time in this country in oratorio, and such was the fact. Steinway Hall was filled, and the occasion was full of interest.
“Miss Nilsson fully justified the great reputation that she brought to this country as an oratorio singer. There were many who at her concerts objected to her method of singing ‘Angels ever bright and fair,’ and who, founding their anticipations on that performance, concluded that Miss Nilsson’s oratorio singing would be characterized by an over-strained sentiment, and much liberty with the time and even with the notes of the composer.
“But these anticipations proved entirely erroneous. Miss Nilsson sang Handel’s music in a most devout spirit, with a reverent regard for the music as the composer wrote it, and for the sacred text. Her spirit was certainly in perfect accord with the theme, and she unfolded to us more completely than at any previous occasion the secret of her great reputation.
“There was, in the first place, a unity about the performance such as there never has been at her concerts. In place of the scattered fragments of song, first about one subject and then about another, the whole was knit together in sentiment. The key of feeling that the orchestra set with the solemn introduction was sustained to the end. And Miss Nilsson did every thing to keep that feeling intact. She laid aside the debonaire manner that she is accustomed to wear at her concerts, and was in manner in accord with the occasion. Her voice seems specially adapted by its exquisite purity to sacred music, and in her singing of the great solos ‘Rejoice Greatly,’ ‘How Beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of Peace,’ and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ there seemed to us everything to commend and nothing to warrant objection. The intonation was pure and true, the phrasing especially beautiful, and the effect devotional and ennobling.
“The choruses were sung by the Mendelssohn Union, and we never heard the Society to like advantage. They were prompt in their time, excellently in tune, and correct in expression. They seemed to have been reinforced. Certainly, they turned out in strong numbers, and they were evidently determined to do their best, and certainly the result was a most satisfactory one.
“The soloists were Miss Beebe, Miss Cary, Mr. Simpson and Mr. Whitney. The latter gentleman sang nobly. It was a true artistic pleasure to listen to his fine phrasing and delivery, and his careful and finished performance. Mr. Simpson sang well, as usual. Miss Beebe was at a great disadvantage in appearing in contrast with Miss Nilsson.
“Her voice sounded weak and her method immature. She sings ‘with closed mouth,’ as the Italians say, and the effect is not good. Miss Cary sang very well, but very coldly. There is no vibration or pathos to her voice, and without that such tearful arias as ‘He was despised and rejected,’ cannot be properly rendered. An evil spirit seemed to possess the orchestra. It played shamefully, and the trumpet obbligato in the great bass solo, ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ was ludicrously bad.
“Usually in oratorios the chorus is shaky and the orchestra steady, but on this occasion it was the reverse.
“The organ however somewhat redeemed the matter. It was played by Mr. S. P. Warren, and with that fine judgment, tact, and musicianly skill that mark all his work at this instrument, and that have placed him at the head of his profession.” [Reprinted Dwight’s Journal of Music 12/03/70, p. 360]
“Miss Christina Nilsson was in heard in oratorio, at Steinway Hall, yesterday evening, for the first time in this country. She sang in ‘The Messiah,’ and renewed the delightful impression which a superb voice, managed with an art well fitted to display it to the broadest advantage, has on no one occasion since the artist’s earliest appearance here failed to make. The most satisfying interpretation of the work given for many years, caused the concert to be worthy of unusual commendation. We anticipated, indeed, little less. The generosity and judgment denoted in the selection of the artists surrounding Miss Nilsson, from the outset of that portion of her career begun in September last, were not likely to have departed with an ever-increasing success. Hence the excellence of the aid supplied to her; an excellence which, being admitted in the case of the several performances concerned long ago, served to augment the merits of the recitation of the soprano part in ‘The Messiah.’ We cannot do Miss Nilsson’s share of the execution of Handel’s master-piece fuller justice than by recording that it was effective in the highest degree. Without pausing at present the view the subject-matter of the composition, or its grand musical treatment, we may express the opinion that we by no means coincide with the belief of ultra-Handelians, to whom an untraditional reading of the score is sacrilege. There can be no object more deserving of being kept in sight than the endowment of the words and of their illustrative sounds with their most complete significance, and this being attained by means legitimate, the voices of the past will scarcely be numerous enough to overpower the louder sounds of timely gratitude and praise. Miss Nilsson’s frequent disregard of the prescribed tempo in passages of ‘The Messiah’ and occasional transposition of an accent will not easily escape the censure of the upholders of precedent, although the license obtains, as it did last evening, the sanction of a thousand hearers. The freedom and appreciable beauty of her readings contrasted strongly with the no less artistic but certainly more formal singing of her associates. The recitatives were declaimed with the power and clearness made familiar in secular music, and the airs were executed with a great purity of voice and facility of vocalization. The aria commencing with ‘Rejoice greatly,’ and abounding in florid passages, was given in a faultless manner, the unwearying ease with which the lady shows the suppleness of her organ being especially prominent. The aria ‘How beautiful are the feet,’ was sung with exquisite sentiment, though in the last bars the singer took breath twice or thrice at points where it was at least inexpedient to do so. On the other hand, the grand air of the oratorio, ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,’ had an utterance as nearly suited to its sense as can be hoped for it, and the strength and variety of the color bestowed upon it won recognition in the form of a tumultuous demand for a repeat. Miss Nilsson had for assistants Miss Cary, Miss Beebe and Messrs. Simpson and Whitney. Miss Cary seemed rather indisposed to exertion in her first air, ‘O Thou that Tellest,’ but her magnificent contralto notes were freighted with their utmost sweetness and sonority in the deliciously tuneful ‘He Shall Feed His Flock,’ and in the afterpieces. Mr. Simpson, who is without doubt the most proficient of oratorio tenors, was in thoroughly good condition, and sang with taste and with unerring regard for the text. The basso, Mr. Whitney, has less vocal flexibility than we could desire, but is gifted with an extremely fine voice. Miss Beebe’s method is quite adapted to the task she had, and her style atoned for the sharpness of her organ. It only remains to add that the chorus was as numerous as could be mustered on the platform of the hall,--which, indeed, had been deepened about fifteen feet,—and that the orchestra was also satisfactory in point of numerical might. The spirit and precision of both bodies were unfailing throughout the entertainment, and they reflected much credit upon the conductor, Mr. Bristow. Although the original score was cut with no grudging hand, the concert lasted almost three hours.”
“It is almost superfluous to say that Miss Nilsson’s return to New-York and her first appearance in this country in oratorio proved attractions sufficient to fill Steinway Hall last night with an excellent audience, in which critics and connoisseurs were largely represented. Fame had told us wonders of the impression which Miss Nilsson made with the music of ‘The Messiah’ in London; but in truth she had manifested in her concerts up to this time no particular sympathy with the severe simplicity and true dignity of Handel, and we were not prepared to find in her interpretation of the oratorio a tithe of the excellence which English critics attributed to it. We frankly confess, however, that she took us last night entirely by surprise. We believe that the reports of her London performances have been exaggerated; the delight of her audiences across the water was occasioned in great part by the fact of her singing at all in a class of music which Englishmen believe (with some truth) that hardly anybody outside of their own nation thoroughly loves or understands, and since she had won the heart of England by doing homage to Handel, there was no disposition to examine very closely the character of that homage, or to inquire whether she comprehended the grand old master better than the famous singers who had gone before her. Nilsson is so essentially and consciously an actress, that we had our misgivings about her rendering of the music of ‘The Messiah’—music which requires, more than any other we know of, that the singer should forget self, forget appearances, and think deeply of the inner meaning of the text. We cannot say that she reaches the high ideal which the lovers of Handel always keep before them in this oratorio, and in nothing, except the rare sweetness and purity of her voice and the charm of her personal presence, is she equal to some others whom we have heard in the same work; but there is unquestionably a fascination in her performance which is peculiarly her own, and artistically we consider it one of the best things she has yet done. She is first heard in that lovely recitative, ‘There were Shepherds,’ and this we did not like. It should be sung piano, or even pianissimo, with all possible delicacy; Nilsson gives it with full voice, and in a style which is almost declamatory. Her second solo, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,’ was excellent, but did not differ materially in style from the conventional rendering. The third soprano air, ‘Come unto Him,’ strange to say, she did not sing, but it was left to the thin and rather wiry voice of Miss Henrietta Beebe. Miss Beebe also had the recitative, ‘He was cut off’ and the air which follows it, ‘But thou didst not leave.’ The quartets, ‘Since by man came death,’ &c., were omitted, and so was the soprano solo, ‘If God be for us,’ just before the final chorus. This solo, indeed, is usually dropped, though Miss Nilsson restored it in London. There remained then for the Swedish songstress only ‘How beautiful are the feet,’ and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ for the latter of which she evidently reserved her best efforts. She takes a few liberties with it, chiefly in the accent, and gives an interpretation rather more dramatic than we are used to, and full of strong contrasts; but she sings it with a pathos she has not hitherto exhibited, and a delicacy far more genuine and therefore more touching than the exaggerated refinement of such over praised exhibitions of vocalism as her ‘Angels ever bright and fair.’ The musician will detect in it some gross faults of delivery; but these may well be pardoned in what is essentially so truthful and beautiful. The audience seemed to be deeply impressed by it, and asked for a repetition, which was very properly refused.
“So much interest attached to Miss Nilsson’s share in the programme that we fear the rest of the performance was but imperfectly appreciated. It was all through the best rendering of ‘The Messiah’ that we have had in New-York for three years. The chorus, consisting of about 200 voices from the Mendelssohn Union under the direction of Mr. Bristow, sang admirably. It never got perceptibly out, and in the great pieces such as the ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘All we like sheep,’ it did nobly. There was a deficiency in the shading, evident especially in both the soft and the loud passages of that grand number, ‘For unto us a child is born,’ but we have little other fault to find with it. The orchestra, however, was outrageously bad, and the second cornet player in particular who attempted the obligato part in the bass aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’ deserves to be imprisoned for life. Miss Cary sang the alto solos with the simple and natural style, the intelligence, the fine culture, and the sweetness of voice which have made her such a favorite, and Mr. Simpson, to whom, as usual, the tenor part was committed, was in his very best trim. Mr. Whitney of Boston took the bass. He is probably the best oratorio basso in the country; his voice is strong and pleasant, his appreciation of the music is sound, and his phrasing is delightful to study. In his last solo he suddenly became hoarse, but up to that time he was admirable.”