July 01, 2010


Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie. Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan. Naïve. $16.99.

Eric Whitacre: Choral Music. Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $8.99.

     Sometimes the personal elements associated with a recording overwhelm, or at least threaten to overwhelm, the music itself. The Naïve release of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony contains only that one work, which is not really important enough (or infrequently recorded enough) to deserve an entire CD all to itself. But booklet notes by Christophe Ghristi and by conductor Philippe Jordan seek to elevate the recording to iconic status. Ghristi, correctly noting that this work is a tone poem rather than a true symphony, discusses the tragedies against whose background Strauss wrote the work in 1915: Mahler’s death four years earlier and the suicide in 1891 of 34-year-old Swiss painter Karl Stauffer-Bern. Ghristi cites Nietzsche’s writings as inspirational to Strauss and even quotes the composer as saying that Eine Alpensinfonie really ought to be called “The Antichrist” because it is about worship of nature and “moral purification through one’s own strength.” For his part, Jordan explains that Strauss’ work was played in his first concert as music director of Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris because he saw that concert as the start of a journey and the work as “sum[ming] up the whole art of Western orchestral music.” Well, wow. This is a lot of weight to put on a well-structured but at most moderately innovative tone poem that simply traces a day spent in the mountains. The overheated prose of this CD’s booklet is really too much for Eine Alpensinfonie to bear – this is scarcely even Strauss’ greatest work, much less a summation of the Western orchestral world. Furthermore, whatever may have inspired Strauss to write the piece, it is in fact simply a tonal painting – often atmospheric, sometimes overdone – of a mountain journey. Redolent of Nietzsche it may be, at least in some ways, but tragic it is not. Nor does Jordan attempt to make it so in performance. The recording – and it, not the essays, is, after all, what people will buy – is quite a goodone, spirited and atmospheric by turns, effective in the storm sequence, lovely in the “Elegie” section, and well done in bringing out the tone painting in “At the Waterfall,” “Apparition,” “On the Glacier” and elsewhere. But although this is a well-conducted and well-played performance, it does not really reveal any more of the music than, say, Karl Böhm’s highly idiomatic one from the early 1950s (recently made available on a new Audite CD). In fact, reading the booklet notes before hearing the recording sets up a listener for disappointment, since the music simply does not measure up to the importance that Ghristi and Jordan assign to it. This is a very good performance of a very good (but not great) piece by Strauss. And that is all it is, no matter how personally meaningful the occasion may have been to Jordan or the music’s background to the composer.

     There are highly personal elements throughout the choral music of Eric Whitacre (born 1970), and they are heard in abundance on a new CD of 11 of his works. Eight of these pieces are a cappella and give Whitacre ample scope for his eclectic mix of contemporary techniques and sounds with vocal music’s traditional emphasis on precision of enunciation and beauty of tone. The longest piece here, When David Heard, gives the Elora Festival Singers nearly 13 minutes of sometimes-intricate, sometimes-direct communication, and Noel Edison paces them well – their textural clarity and warmly blended sound are quite effective. The other a cappella pieces on this CD are Her Sacred Spirit Soars, A Boy and a Girl, Water Night, This Marriage, Lux aurumque (here translated incorrectly as “Light of Gold,” the title actually means “Light and Gold”), i thank you God for most this amazing day, and Sleep. There are also two pieces with Leslie De'Ath on piano (little tree and Little Birds), plus one with Carol Bauman on percussion (the very interesting Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine). Every work here displays Whitacre’s personal style – which, because it is personal, will not be to everyone’s taste, and indeed at times seems more enjoyable to sing than to listen to (the 62-minute CD seems longer than it is). One reason the works are interesting to perform but not always as pleasing to hear is the profusion of what have come to be called “Whitacre chords,” which are sevenths or ninths that often contain suspended seconds or fourths. Used from time to time, they create unusual coloration in a cappella music. Used frequently, as they are by Whitacre, they tend to grate on the ear after a while (but are challenging and quite interesting for the performers to sing). Add to the chordal structure a tendency to use frequent metrical and rhythmic changes and you have works that give performers a real workout but that do not always bring equal pleasure to listeners – at least not when they go on for an hour or more. Individual pieces and parts of pieces on this CD are fascinating, but the disc as a whole is more of an enthusiast’s delight than anything else. Still, Whitacre does have enthusiasts, and they will surely welcome this well-performed heaping helping of his choral music.

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