January 08, 2009


Taverner & Tudor Music II: Gloria tibi Trinitas. Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Paul Hillier. Dacapo. $16.99.

John Tavener: Ex Maria Virgine (2005); Birthday Sleep (1999); O, Do Not Move (1990); A Nativity (1985); Marienhymne (2005); O Thou Gentle Light (2000); Angels (1985/1996). James McVinnie and Sinnon Thomas Jacobs, organ; Stefan Berkieta, baritone; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge conducted by Timothy Brown. Naxos. $8.99.

Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951); My Christmas (1987). Soloists, members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus and Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Amahl conducted by Alastair Willis, My Christmas by George Mabry. Naxos. $8.99.

     There are beauties aplenty on these three CDs. But beauty can cloy, especially when it is much the same kind of beauty seen (or, in this case, heard) again and again. Many works created by the very different composers represented on these CDs are exceedingly lovely. But listening to each disc in its entirety – never mind listening to more than one – is less of a pleasure than listening to the individual pieces.

     Taverner & Tudor Music II is, as the title indicates, the second disc of music featuring the excellent Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen. There is some glorious music of England’s Tudor era here, represented primarily by – as the CD’s subtitle makes clear – the Mass Gloria tibi Trinitas by John Taverner (c. 1490-1545). The CD’s arrangement, though, is well-meant in theory but rather capricious in practice. Taverner’s work, like other Masses, is of course intended to be sung in sequence, from the “Gloria” to the “Agnus Dei.” But on this CD, other works are interpolated among Taverner’s movements: some plainchant antiphons on similar texts, which arguably makes historical (or at least scholarly) sense, and some works by other composers of Taverner’s time or later, which really makes no sense at all. A listener can certainly program the CD’s playback to present Taverner’s Mass as it was intended to be heard, but the fact is that Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen designed the disc to be heard in a different way – one that does not quite work. Some of the non-Taverner pieces here are excellent in their own right, notably Magnificat Royale by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). There are also fine works by Robert White (c. 1534-1578), William Byrd (1543-1623) and Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) – all worthy, but all a bit out of context here, with the result that this lovingly performed disc ends up seeming a bit odd.

     A single letter and 500 years separate John Taverner from John Tavener (born 1944), but the sentiments of their works are as close as their names rather than as distant as their eras. Most of the music on the new Tavener CD is for unaccompanied chorus, with two works – Ex Maria Virgine and Marienhymne – being world premiรจre recordings. Tavener’s harmonic language is, not surprisingly, very distant indeed from Taverner’s: A Nativity, for example, uses tone clusters to create an atmospheric setting of words by William Butler Yeats. In many ways, it is Tavener’s choice of texts that makes this CD intriguing: O Do Not Move uses words by contemporary Greek poet George Seferis, Birthday Sleep sets lines by modern Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, the words for Marienhymne are by Swiss philosopher-poet Frithjof Schuon, and so on. Much of the music is lovely, often expressing a mysticism that fits modern spiritual quests as closely as orthodox traditionalism fit people’s lives 500 years ago. But Tavener does go on and on: Ex Maria Virgine runs 38 minutes, longer than many Mozart masses, and while it certainly suits the occasion for which it was written (the marriage of the Prince of Wales to the Duchess of Cornwall), it is a bit much to take in one’s own home.

     Opera is one medium that can bring religious texts and sentiments effectively to life, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors has been doing just that in the Christmas season for well over half a century. The work remains immensely popular, and was created to be so: it was the first opera ever written for television. Its simplicity of story, staging and music make it a favorite with amateur groups – and indeed, even when performed professionally, as under Alastair Willis’ direction, it comes across as somewhat amateurish. This is not to take away from the attractive accessibility of the story – but after so many years and so many performances, some of the charm of the magical healing of lame Amahl has been lost. Well sung, well played and nicely recorded, Amahl and the Night Visitors, always an occasional piece (that is, a work created for a specific occasion: Christmas), now seems like a period piece as well. Menotti’s short choral work, My Christmas, rounds out the CD nicely and keeps its focus squarely on the Christmas season. The disc is certainly pleasant enough, but most families are unlikely to play it now that its season is over – at least until next Christmas comes around.

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