March 18, 2010


Dvořák: Requiem. Lisa Milne, soprano; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Peter Auty, tenor; Peter Rose, bass; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Neeme Järvi. LPO. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Gerald Finley, Baritone: Great Operatic Arias. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $14.99.

Magnus Lindberg: GRAFFITI (2009); Seht die Sonne (2007). Helsinki Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Ondine. $16.99.

     Vocal expressiveness is not synonymous with vocal beauty. Composers may use the voice for communications ranging from the ethereal (much of Bach) to the guttural (Berg’s Wozzeck, to cite one example). In these new recordings, the voices are called upon to play a variety of different roles.

     The greatest sustained beauty is to be found in Dvořák’s infrequently performed Requiem, which is a more personal expression of sentiments than is usual in a mass for the dead. The 19th century saw Requiems from the ultra-grandiose (Berlioz) to the ultra-operatic (Verdi), and Dvořák’s makes no attempt to scale those heights. What he does is subtler and was surely more meaningful to the composer himself, given his unwavering religious faith. Using the traditional Requiem text as a jumping-off point rather than a given, he creates an unusually structured work in two parts. The first runs from “Requiem aeternam” through the “Lacrimosa,” and is permeated by a sorrowful three-note motif first heard at the work’s opening. The second part includes the “Offertorium,” “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” – but before the final part, Dvořák interpolates a “Pie Jesu” section with words from the final text of the “Dies Irae” portion. The result is a work that is intimate and strongly heartfelt and that comes across, when well performed, as a personal plea – not just an institutional one – for mercy and peace after death. It is the emotionalism of the appeal that comes through most strongly in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance, with soloists and chorus leaning into the music with fervor and bringing forth not only the beauty of the composer’s scoring but also the intensity with which he clearly felt the words as he chose to present them. This live recording from February 2009 was the LPO’s first performance of this Requiem, and conductor Neeme Järvi clearly wanted there to be a series of emotional high points throughout its hour and a half. The LPO’s sound is, in truth, not ideally suited to music of such warmth and fluidity – the orchestra boasts clarity, even astringency, rather than the broader tone of some Central European ensembles. But in this recording, everyone seems determined to rise to the heights that the subject matter demands, and the result is a very moving experience that makes one wonder why this work is not performed more frequently.

     The pieces sung by baritone Gerald Finley for a new “Opera in English” CD from Chandos are performed all the time, and very well, too. And that is a problem for this well-sung, well-recorded disc. The reason is that English translation of opera is perhaps justifiable in the context of making it possible for an audience to follow the story, and the interplay of characters, without knowing a work’s original language. But on a 13-track CD of some of opera’s greatest hits – with only three pieces originally written in English – the translations are much harder to accept. It takes the pleasure out of Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano to render it as “There will my arms enfold you” (librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was writing about hands, not arms, in any case). Bizet’s Toreador, en garde – which uses a phrase that never needs translation – is just plain silly as “Toreador, be ready.” And it is hard to keep from giggling inappropriately when an aria from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg comes out as “Do not disdain our Masters thus.” Finley has a pleasant voice – not especially brilliant, not exceptionally strong, but well modulated, sensitive to the nuances of different composers’ styles, and powerful enough to handle Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi as well as Mark-Anthony Turnage, John Adams and the (unfortunately inevitable) “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. So this CD will be a treat for Finley fans, and on that basis gets a (+++) rating. But hearing arias from Euryanthe and Linda di Chamounix in English is, at best, an acquired taste.

     Magnus Lindberg’s music is an acquired taste, too, one that many listeners will be less than eager to acquire. The Finnish composer (born 1958) has an eclectic but always very modern style, often turning to electronic and computer-based manipulation of sound to achieve the effects he wants. In GRAFFITI – the title is all in capitals – Lindberg wanted to create his first work for chorus and orchestra, and came up with a clever way to do so. He chose as text some bits of graffiti found on the walls of houses of ancient Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. And he set the words – in rather scattershot fashion and in largely modal choral writing – against chromatic instrumental parts. The result is complex and is interesting rather than gripping, and will not by any means be to all tastes – even though it is in fact somewhat simpler and more accessible than much other Lindberg music. GRAFFITI is paired with a performance of Seht die Sonne, whose title harks back to the first words of the final section of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (even though Lindberg’s work is purely instrumental). This is earlier but more difficult Lindberg, dense and filled with sounds that can be difficult to grasp in a single hearing. There is something symphonic in scale about the work – Lindberg himself has said that Aura, written in 1994 in memory of Witold Lutosławski, could be seen as his first symphony and Seht die Sonne as his second. But Seht die Sonne has none of the traditional sequences or building blocks of a symphony, and is best heard as a complex orchestral tone poem of indeterminate subject. This Lindberg CD, which is very well performed by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, gets a (+++) rating for its effectiveness in putting across the composer’s strongly delineated musical approach. But many listeners will not find the music itself particularly approachable.

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