November 03, 2011

(+++) SORROW, HOPE AND BEAUTY

Robert Moran: Trinity Requiem; Seven Sounds Unseen; Notturno in Weiss; Requiem for a Requiem. Trinity Youth Chorus and members of Trinity Choir conducted by Robert Ridgell (Requiem); Musica Sacra conducted by Richard Westenburg (Seven); The Esoterics conducted by Eric Banks (Notturno); Philip Blackburn Remix (Requiem for a Requiem). Innova. $12.99.

James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass (2001); Winter’s Wait (2010); Give us the wings of faith (2002); A brief story of Peter Abelard (2006/11); A Prayer from South Africa (2009); Living Voices (2001); Requiem canticorum (2010); All shall be Amen and Alleluia (2009). Jeremy Powell, soprano saxophone; Ken Cowan, organ; Ronn Carroll, reader; Jonathan Palmer Lakeland, piano; Jacob Ezzo, percussion; Westminster Williamson Voices conducted by James Jordan. Naxos. $9.99.

Teizo Matsumura: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; To the Night of Gethsemane. Ikuyo Kamiya, piano; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa. Naxos. $9.99.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.

Kara Karayev: Ballet Suites—Seven Beauties; In the Path of Thunder. Moscow Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rauf Abdullayev. Delos. $16.99.

     Anyone who believes that modern classical composers write cold, soulless music need only listen to the strongly emotional elements of a number of recent recordings in order to be disabused of that incorrect notion. Robert Moran (born 1937) wrote Trinity Requiem to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks by terrorist murderers on the World Trade Center in New York City – but the work is more than a lament, more than a threnody. It was commissioned by Trinity Church for youth voices and ended up being performed for Innova by many young people who were scarcely born when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. But the piece reaches out in more-general terms to everyone affected by war, terror and fear; it transcends the specific event it commemorates. And its heartfelt combination of high voices with organ, harps and cellos give it a simple, direct appeal that is oddly heightened by its only specific reference to the terror: a siren during the Offertory, recorded by mistake and unable to be edited out. The sound stands as the single direct reminder of what this piece is about – helping the work provide a feeling of uplift as well as commemoration of the cold-blooded murder of thousands. Also on the CD are Seven Sounds Unseen for 20 solo voices, which uses fragments of letters written to Moran by John Cage, set to choral textures; Notturno in Weiss, a setting of a Surrealist poem by Christian Morgenstern; and Requiem for a Requiem, a collage by Philip Blackburn of several Moran works that is the least interesting and most self-indulgent piece here, and the most overtly “modern” in approach. Most of the CD offers a meaningful emotional experience, well sung and well presented.

     James Whitbourn commemorates the murders on 9/11 in a very different way with a very different work called Living Voices, written the same year that the terrorists struck and lasting just three minutes – and using a poem by Andrew Motion to express the mournfulness of the time. The choral music of Whitbourn (born 1963) is equally effective. His short Requiem canticorum is a simple, fairly straightforward and meaningful setting of parts of the traditional mass for the dead. His Son of God Mass for choir, saxophone and organ is the major work on this new Naxos CD, largely following the traditional format of a Mass but also including commentary, of a sort, in movements called “Kyrie meditation,” “Lava me” and “Pax Domini.” And there are several well-made shorter pieces offered here as well, all of them preoccupied with life, death and the balance between the two – and the faith-based response of the living to the death of loved ones.

     Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) achieves something of the same stirring effect, but in purely instrumental terms, in her Symphony No. 2, written for piano and orchestra in 1998 and then revised between 1999 and 2006. Here, sorrow and hope coexist and alternate, each taking the place of the other for a time, only to return to the background as the other emotion comes equally strongly to the front. The work was inspired by statues at the entrance to a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan, but its Asian elements are balanced by European influences in structure, harmony and overall emotional impact. It shares a new Naxos CD with the composer’s Symphony No. 1, which dates to 1965 and is a much more powerful and intense work than the second symphony; and Matsumura’s last orchestral composition, To the Night of Gethsemane (2002, revised 2003-05), written for chamber orchestra and inspired by Giotto’s fresco, “The Kiss of Judas.” The blending of Buddhist and Christian feelings and emphases in Matsumura’s work allows a mixing of emotions as well, with hopefulness and something akin to despair – but not quite despairing – coexisting and periodically giving way to each other.

     Hope and fear, or at least uncertainty, have long been known to coexist in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, with the apparently triumphal final movement in particular representing either a joyous affirmation or a disguised subsuming of the composer’s heartache into an empty, formulaic triumphalism. Leonard Bernstein’s sensitive December 1966 performance of the symphony is now available on a DVD that also includes a brief (five-minute) look at Bernstein’s rehearsal of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra. The affirmative elements of the score and its sarcasm are front-and-center in Bernstein’s interpretation, which is powerful and, in the third movement, genuinely moving. But the DVD will be of interest mainly to Bernstein’s more ardent fans, since the whole thing runs less than an hour and the performance, while admirable, gains little from being seen on video – although those who enjoy Bernstein’s often-flamboyant conducting style will appreciate the chance to watch it here.

     Far less known than Shostakovich, but a significant musician of the Soviet era nevertheless, Kara Karayev (more often written Gara Garayev) was a prominent Azerbaijani composer – and Shostakovich was his mentor, teaching him composition from 1942 to 1946. Shostakovich praised Karayev’s skill in polyphony and instrumentation, and the latter is much in evidence in a new recording of suites from the ballets Seven Beauties (1952) and In the Path of Thunder (1957). These are the only two ballets by Karayev (1918-1982), and the first of them – a work about betrayal of oppressed people by corrupt rulers, a typical Soviet-era theme – was the first Azerbaijani ballet composed by anyone. Path of Thunder, which focuses on racial conflicts in South Africa through its story of the forbidden love between a black teacher and white girl, fit into Soviet thinking in a somewhat more unusual way. The lovers die in the course of the conflict that their relationship mirrors, but this leads the people as a whole to rise up on the Path of Thunder – that is, the route to liberation through struggle. Yet neither this ballet nor the earlier one is of the tub-thumping sort that Shostakovich himself created during his theatrical years. Karayev’s music is by turns lyrical and passionate, on the one hand, and discordant and harsh, on the other. And he is quite as capable of creating character dances (“Indian Dance,” “Khorezm Dance,” “Slavonic Dance,” “Magrib Dance” and “Chinese Dance” in Seven Beauties) as he is of writing the tender “Lullaby” and intensely demonstrative concluding “In the Path of Thunder” march in his later ballet. Karayev’s music is very little known outside his native region, but Shostakovich was right about him: he had considerable skill in composition and more than a little talent for communicating his ideas, even within the strictures of Soviet society.

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