November 20, 2008


Orff: Carmina Burana. Laura Claycomb, soprano; Barry Banks, tenor; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Tiffin Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Pergolesi: Messa di S. Emidio (Missa Romana); A. Scarlatti: Messa per il Santissimo Natale. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Ty Jackson, boy soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men’s Chorus and Orchestra; Prelude to Genesis for Mixed Chorus and Orchestra; Dreimal Tausend Jahre for Mixed Chorus a cappella; Psalm 130, De Profundis, for Mixed Chorus a cappella; Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for String Quartet, Piano and Reciter; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Rolf Schulte, violin; David Wilson-Johnson, Narrator and Reciter; Jeremy Denk, piano; The Fred Sherry Quartet; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is such a wide variety of choral music available on CD nowadays that it is easy to become lost in the sheer sonic splendor of it all. The really good performances, though, go beyond excellent singing to illuminate the music in fresh ways. Thus, although Orff’s often-recorded Carmina Burana is primarily a choral work, the new Chandos SACD featuring a live 2007 performance led by Richard Hickox turns out to belong as much to the excellent soloists as to the chorus. The sound here is more SACD-focused than in many similar recordings – that is, one needs a multichannel system to get its full benefit; the chorus sounds a touch muffled (or perhaps oddly miked) when the recording is played on a standard two-channel CD player. This is a performance that improves as it goes along: the opening chorus and first section, “Primo vere,” are a little mannered, but “In Taberna” (which features first-class vocal acting by baritone Christopher Maltman and an especially fine “roasted swan” solo by Barry Banks) is top-notch, and “Cours d’amours” is as bright, bouncy and occasionally operatic as a listener could wish (Laura Claycomb’s “Dulcissime” is just splendid). Carmina Burana is often described as crude music, and its tonal clarity seems a touch out of place for a cantata written in 1936. Hickox’s approach nicely highlights a number of instrumental details, then makes the more striking parts of the score as forthright as possible (the bass drum has never sounded better). The result is a performance that shows Orff’s work to have more subtlety than it is usually credited with having.

     There is subtlety aplenty in both the music and the performances in the new Naïve CD featuring Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini. Giovanni Pergolesi’s Missa Romana is far less known than his often-recorded Stabat Mater. The mass is one of only two that are certain to be by Pergolesi, who died at age 26 (in all, nine masses have been attributed to him). Missa Romana was first performed in Rome in 1734, but traces its origin to an earthquake that hit Naples in 1731, leading city leaders to choose St. Emygdius, Bishop of Ascoli, as a patron who could intercede with God to prevent further catastrophes. What is interesting in the 21st century is the extent to which Pergolesi’s work transcends not only its time but also its strictly religious text and reason for being. It is a moving, near-operatic work that Alessandrini – a fine conductor of 18th-century opera – does not hesitate to perform with emotional intensity, while remaining true to performance practices of the era. And the Alessandro Scarlatti Messa per il Santissimo Natale is just as well done: Alessandrini makes it elegant, assured, well-balanced and emotionally involving in a way that Italian Baroque religious music would not necessarily be expected to be. The sensitivity of both the singing and the playing on this CD makes it an outstanding achievement.

     John Corigliano’s A Dylan Thomas Trilogy is a work of our time, written in 1960 and revised in 1999, and might be expected to speak more directly and clearly to a modern audience than the music of Pergolesi and Scarlatti. But this is not quite so: it speaks differently but with no greater clarity. Corigliano’s setting of “Fern Hill,” “Poem in October” and “Poem on His Birthday” also includes two separate parts of “Author’s Prologue,” one to open the hour-long work and one after “Fern Hill.” The darkness lying just beneath the surface of much of Thomas’ poetry is what seems to interest Corigliano most. In “Fern Hill,” he emphasizes the way in which Time comes to hold the poet “green and dying”; “Poem in October” has the poet using his birthday to reflect on the past and meditate, rather melancholically, on the future; and “Poem on His Birthday” contains images of the River Styx and of herons walking “in their shroud.” But not all is darkness here, with “Author’s Prologue” bringing an intense sense of life and liveliness to the work – abetted by well-constructed music that captures its moods as effectively as it does the darker moods of the other sections. This world première recording features fine singing by the Nashville Symphony Chorus and sensitive playing by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, plus solo parts that highlight the many moods of Corigliano’s work, showing Thomas’ poetry to be dark but scarcely without hope.

     Arnold Schoenberg’s late choral works are dark, too, but they use the voices quite differently from the way Corigliano did several decades later. Schoenberg carefully established contrasts in his vocal writing among singing, a declamatory spoken style and Sprechstimme. His use of a narrator in A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) provides a contrast with the male chorus that enters at the end and helps make this seven-minute work a full-fledged music drama. The reciter in Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (1942) functions differently in this non-choral work, intensely and often sarcastically presenting a text drawn from Lord Byron’s scornful poem, written after Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. The wordless chorus in Prelude to Genesis (1945) is just one part of the overall texture, but it is the choral focus that brings power to Dreimal Tausend Jahre (1949) and Psalm 130, De Profundis (1950 – Schoenberg’s last completed work). The last of these, in particular, contrasts pure speech with pure singing in a way characteristic of Schoenberg and used by him to heighten the different emotional elements within a piece. All these works, performed under the direction of Robert Craft, are highly effective, but no more so than the purely instrumental work on this CD – the Violin Concerto, which lasts almost as long as all the other works put together. Rolf Schulte gives a knowing and intense performance of this work, whose three-movement structure seems completely in line with classical practice and whose movements even bear traditional tempo indications. But this is quite clearly Schoenberg, not Brahms, although some of the compositional techniques hark back to those of the earlier composer. The metrical variations and tempo and rhythm changes all clearly reflect Schoenberg’s view of the concerto form, and the magisterial ending caps the work with his unmistakable imprint. This concerto was begun in 1934 and finished in 1936 – the same year as Carmina Burana. Listening to the two in close proximity highlights Schoenberg’s modernism, Orff’s primitivism, and the huge gap between compositional styles of the 20th century – a gap that only listeners can close, by finding ways to open their ears to a very broad spectrum of music.

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