December 29, 2011

(+++) CHAMBER AND CHOIR

Copland: Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet; Peter Schickele: Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano; Libby Larsen: Rodeo Queen of Heaven; Peter Lieuwen: Gulfstream. enhaké (Wonkak Kim, clarinet; M. Brent Williams, violin; Jayoung Kim, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano); Corinne Stillwell, violin; Pamela Ryan, viola. Naxos. $9.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: Chamber Music. Katie Reimer, James Orleans, Jonathan Engle, Maarten Stragier, Vasko Dukovski, Ra Young Ahn, Michael Couper, Claire Cutting, Thomas Fleming, Lydian String Quartet. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Thierry Lancino: Requiem. Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano; Nora Gubisch, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; Nicolas Courjal, bass; Chœur de Radio France and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Naxos. $9.99.

Rautavaara: Works for Children’s Choir. Tapiola Choir and Tapiola Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pasi Hyökki. Ondine. $16.99.

     Modern composers’ treatment of small-ensemble and choral writing often builds on the past differently from moderns’ handling of orchestral works. A new recording by the ensemble called enhaké (which spells its name with a small first letter) is in effect a 55-minute survey of different chamber-music approaches during three-quarters of a century. Copland’s Sextet, which started out as his Symphony No. 2, dates to 1937 and is a fine example of his forays into “serious” music (as opposed to the more “popular” works for which he is better known). In three well-contrasted movements, the piece is filled with effective melodies and Copland’s usual sure-handed writing, which partakes of 20th-century extensions of classical approaches but never abandons older harmonic and rhythmic elements entirely. Peter Schickele also has a strong sense of classical proportion and structure, and his 1982 quartet – for the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano – is well assembled and clearly shows influences from jazz and folk music. But it does not have quite the wit and spirit that Schickele displays in his parodistic compositions by “PDQ Bach,” as if the composer is deliberately trying to keep his entertainment life and his serious classical-music works separate. The quartet’s finale, marked “quite fast, dancing,” is its most engaging movement. The other works on this CD are shorter and from the 21st century. Libby Larsen’s Rodeo Queen of Heaven (2010), inspired by a painting of a Madonna with a gun, is rhythmically attractive, while Peter Lieuwen’s Gulfstream (2007) is more graceful and flowing, as seems appropriate in a nature-focused work. All the composers are comfortable with chamber-music writing, although only Copland’s Sextet seems worthy of frequent rehearings.

     Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz is skilled in chamber music, too, as evidenced by a highly varied disc containing six of his works for various instrumental combinations. The most interesting thing about this music is the way Fairouz (born 1985) handles very different instruments with apparent ease – although his works lie more easily on some than on others. Litany for solo double bass with wind quartet is an intriguing experiment in sonority; Four Critical Models for alto saxophone and violin presents a dialogue with philosophical overtones, perhaps biting off a bit more than it can musically chew; Piano Miniatures 1-6 are very short solo-piano works of varying moods; Lamentation and Satire for string quartet offers a fairly straightforward contrast between its two movements; Three Novelettes for piano and alto saxophone have an experimental feeling to them, as shown by movements marked “Cadenzas,” “Serenade” and “Dance Montage”; and Airs for guitar, perhaps the work most closely attuned to classical models, concludes with a toccata that clearly shows Fairouz’ understanding of traditional forms – and his way of bending them. In a number of places, Fairouz pays homage to Eastern music and contrasts it with Western classical forms, harmonies and designs, with the result that there is a certain element of exoticism to these works as well as a sense that they use their instrumental complements effectively.

     Modern composers for chorus generally seem to have absorbed the lessons of the past equally well, and they too put old forms at the service of new types of expression and expressiveness. The 2009 Requiem by Thierry Lancino (born 1954) is a very large-scale work, lasting an hour and a quarter, and it incorporates four soloists as well as a chorus and full orchestra. It is certainly recognizable as having the elements of a traditional Requiem, but it contains additional ones as well, and it puts all its segments at the service of emotions that go beyond the traditionally sacred. From its lengthy opening Prologue – a movement not found in traditional requiem masses – to its final “Dona eis requiem,” which fits more comfortably with the religious tradition of a mass for the dead, Lancino’s work incorporates traditional Christian elements as well as ones that Christians would consider pagan. Rather than being a work in which the performers aid the audience in mourning for the dead, and provide reassurance through standardized religious formulations, this is a ceremonial study of human mortality in general, an exploration of life, death and time, a work that is willing to pose eternal questions without claiming to have all the answers – even though requiem masses traditionally claim just that. The complex libretto by Pascal Quignard (born 1948) is in three languages – French, Latin and Greek – and although it is not included with the CD, Naxos makes it available online. And a good thing, too, because the words here are not mere recitations of well-known phrases, repeated again and again in various guises so as to provide comfort to those who have lost dear ones. Instead, the words are a story of sorts, a tale of what it means to be human. Partaking of several religious traditions, they ask the audience to consider what it means to know that all of us will die someday and not be sure what comfort, if any, we will find afterwards. Lancino’s Requiem is a powerful work and a difficult one on several levels – not especially easy to listen to or to think about. It is a piece that challenges rather than reassures the audience, and in so doing shows the power of modern choral composition within a more-or-less traditional form.

     Less emotionally challenging but vocally just as musically interesting – indeed, in some ways more so – the pieces for children’s choir on a new CD of works by Einojuhani Rautavaara were written over a quarter of a century and draw on a wide variety of texts and ideas. Indeed, there is a mass here, not a requiem but a Children’s Mass for children’s choir and string orchestra (1973); and this is a much shorter and more straightforward work than the expansive creation of the much younger Lancino. In fact, Rautavaara (born 1928) continues to mix the rhapsodic with the overtly modern in many of his pieces, but these works for children’s voices are more declamatory and less experimental than some of his other music. The composer draws upon a biblical text for Love Never Dies (1983), on traditional words for Lorulei (1979), and on the works of Federico García Lorca for the Suite de Lorca (1973). These are all short pieces, as are The Carpenter’s Son (1975) and Waltz of the Innocents (1973/1982). But Rautavaara also creates longer and more substantial choral music for children to sing, including not only the Mass but also the two other works on this CD, which are deeper than the shorter pieces and on the dark side. The philosophical Wenn sich die Welt auftut (“When the World Opens”) dates to 1996, while Marjatta the Lowly Maiden was written in 1977 and is nothing less than a one-act mystery play: the title character becomes pregnant after eating a lingonberry and gives birth to a son – and thus this story from the Kalevala reflects a different view of a Christ-like birth from the traditional one, and stands in contrast to the Mass heard elsewhere on the CD. Rautavaara’s music is not for all tastes, but he is certainly a master of choral composition, and for those who appreciate his style, this CD’s mixture of topics and moods – from the humorous nursery rhymes to the solemn religious works to the philosophical pieces – will prove highly attractive.

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