June 07, 2012

(+++) INTIMATIONS OF MORTALITY


Henryk Górecki: Little Requiem for a Certain Polka; Concerto-Cantata; Harpsichord Concerto (version for piano and orchestra); Three Dances. Anna Górecka, piano; Carol Wincenc, flute; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Maurice Duruflé: Requiem; Giuseppe Sarti: Now the Powers of Heaven; Traditional works—“Run On,” “Deep River” and “The Battle of Jericho.” South Dakota Chorale conducted by Brian A. Schmidt. Gothic Records. $18.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Stabat Mater. Janice Watson, soprano; Dagmar Pecková, mezzo-soprano; Peter Auty, tenor; Peter Rose, bass; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. LPO. $16.99.

I Saw Eternity. Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $9.99.

Richard Danielpour: Symphony No. 3, “Journey without Distance”; First Light; The Awakened Heart. Faith Esham, soprano; Seattle Symphony and Chorale conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Alla Borzova: Songs for Lada; To the New World. Valentina Fleer, soprano; Valentina Kozak, folk contralto; Michigan State University Children’s Choir and Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

      William Wordsworth created a highly evocative title in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality, but many composers focus more intensely on what is distinctly mortal, even if they eventually move on to considerations of possible life, or at least peace, after death.  Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) created, in 1992, a Concerto-Cantata that uses the orchestra, plus piano and flute soloists, to produce deeply expressive melancholy that dominates the work’s four movements and remains with the listener despite the highly charged energy that the work also contains in some sections.  The moods are highly varied as well in Little Requiem for a Certain Polka (1993), which also features a solo piano.  Here too the four movements convey an overall impression of quiet and even mournfulness, the first and longest being marked Tranquillo and the last designated Adagio cantabile.  These two extended and multifaceted works are offered on a new Naxos CD along with the piano version of Górecki’s brief 1980 Harpsichord Concerto, both of whose movements are distinctly upbeat, and the also mostly positive and exciting Three Dances (1973).  Everything is played quite well by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit, and both soloists – particularly Anna Górecka – perform with a sure sense of the composer’s rhythms and an idiomatic understanding of his communicative style.

      Maurice Duruflé’s heartfelt Requiem gets a lovely, very expressive reading in the debut recording by the South Dakota Chorale under Brian A. Schmidt.  Written in 1947 in memory of the composer’s father, this Requiem has none of the earthshaking intensity of those of, say, Berlioz or Verdi – it is gentle, personal, filled with pathos rather than tragedy, using the age-old Latin words to protect the emotions against an overwhelming sense of loss.  It is, in that respect, quite old-fashioned, although Duruflé’s compositional technique remains his own and is certainly no throwback.  The singers show great sensitivity and lovely vocal balance here in a performance that builds very effectively to a concluding In paradisum (not part of a traditional Requiem, but clearly of the greatest importance for Duruflé).  Four short additional choral works, all sung with skill and lovely vocal tone, introduce the Requiem on this Gothic Records SACD and complement it well.

      Dvořák’s Stabat Mater has, if anything, an even-more-intense personal connection than Duruflé’s Requiem or Dvořák’s own Requiem: Dvořák wrote the Stabat Mater in 1887, after the death of all three of his then-surviving children.  (He did not write his more-reflective Requiem until 1890.)  The medieval Latin text is addressed to Mary after the crucifixion of Jesus, but Dvořák clearly saw the work as extending beyond the official purpose of the words to encompass the sorrow of all parents, himself included.  The work is most effective when its continual drops into the depths of despair are contrasted with its attempts at hope and eventual affirmation of faith in a final, extended Amen.  The live London Philharmonic performance from 2010, led by Neeme Järvi and released on the orchestra’s own label, never sounds deeply anguished and therefore does not have as powerful a final affirmation as it might.  It is a somewhat subdued reading, its mourning deeply felt but on the quiet side – certainly a justifiable approach, if not as soul-stirring as it could be.  Nevertheless, this is a well-sung and well-played reading that shows considerable sensitivity to the emotional universe within which Dvořák wrote the Stabat Mater – circumstances from which his faith helped him emerge and move into what became the most creative period of his life.

      The 15 short works performed by the Elora Festival Singers on their new Naxos CD are less deep and intense than Dvořák’s extended and ultimately hopeful lament, but that does not mean they are shallow.  The longest is a four-movement Missa Brevis by Ruth Watson Henderson (born 1932), a fairly traditional setting of very traditional text.  Other comparatively straightforward expressions of faith here are Gloria by Timothy Corlis (born 1972), Nunc Dimittis by Peter Tiefenbach (born 1960), Agnus Dei by Glenn Buhr (born 1954), and Psalm 23 by Imant Raminsh (born 1943).  The remaining pieces may use less-traditional texts, but they nevertheless represent similar traditions of faith and of seeking the meaning of humans’ evanescent existence: I saw eternity by Leonard Enns (born 1948), Corlis’ To See the Cherry Hung with Snow (Corlis is the only composer with more than one work on this CD), Bring Us, O Lord God by Paul Halley (born 1952), Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence by Craig Galbraith (born 1975), Flying Swans by Marjan Mozetich (born 1947), Bless the Lord for the Good Land by Mark G. Sirett (born 1952), and Remember by Stephen Chatman (born 1950).  The pieces were written between 1976 and 2010, but the stylistic differences among them are not particularly pronounced; nor are their professions of belief.  All 11 composers here are Canadian – the Elora Festival Singers is a Canadian chamber choir – but the sentiments expressed are, by intention, far more universal than parochial, although there is a certain sameness to much of the choral writing that tends to become wearing after a time.

      The progression from darkness to affirmation is quite clear in The Awakened Heart by Richard Danielpour (born 1956), and there is nothing dull or formulaic about this three-movement work from 1990.  The second movement, “Epiphany,” stands between the depressive “Into the World’s Night” and the exuberant “My Hero Bares His Nerves,” and the work as a whole comes across as a symphonic journey – and, despite the movement titles, contains no vocal sections.  Danielpour’s Symphony No. 3, on the other hand, does call for a voice, and it too – perhaps even more clearly than The Awakened Heart – moves from despair occasioned by the contemplation of death to a yearning for, and eventually a belief in, hope and love.  The symphony, which dates to 1989 and bears the title “Journey without Distance,” is written in two parts rather than in movements, and has more the sense of a cantata than of a traditional symphony (along the lines of Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, although not at such length or with so much affirmation).  On the basis of this Naxos CD, a great deal of Danielpour’s work visits and revisits the dichotomy of intensity and serenity: the third piece here, First Light (1988), also contrasts hypnotic, chant-like elements with rhythmically intense ones.  Soprano Faith Esham handles the text of the symphony (by Helen Schucman and William Thetford) sensitively and with understanding, and Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are commendably involved in Danielpour’s emotional outpourings.

      Like Danielpour’s Third Symphony, Songs for Lada by Alla Borzova (born 1961) is also, in effect, a cantata, but the emotional territory it explores is quite different.  Borzova, born in Belarus but living in the United States since 1993, looks back to the children’s folk songs, rhymes and lullabies of her homeland in five movements called “Ladu-Ladu-Ladki,” “A Game with ‘Poppy,’” “Once a Father Had Three Sons,” “Once ‘Bai’ Walked Across the Wall (Lullaby),” and “Shine, Shine, the Sun!”  The contrasting voices of a soprano and folk contralto bring the songs effectively to life, and Borzova’s use of folk instruments – dudkas (played by Valeriy Yavor), cimbalom (Christopher Deane) and bagpipe (Kasya Radzivilava) – heightens the identification of the work with Belarus and gives it an exotic flavor.  Yet Songs for Lada ultimately strives for a kind of universality in its exploration of childhood themes that cross national boundaries, doing so in part through its use of sounds – such as bird song – that both children and adults will recognize anywhere in the world.  Leonard Slatkin leads the work with a firm hand and sensitive understanding, bringing the same characteristics as well to a piece called To the New World (2001-02).  This is an instrumental work, in which Borzova again dips into traditional music – but this time, to explore the thoughts that could have been going through the minds of immigrants during a journey to new lives in the United States.  This music is as accessible as Songs for Lada but not ultimately as effective, since this is territory that other composers have explored frequently in the past, and Borzova’s approach is nicely done but not especially original.  Still, both these works have interesting elements and a sound that is unusual in its well-managed blending of musical influences from multiple countries.

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