June 28, 2012

(++++) VARIED VOCAL EXPRESSIONS


Berlioz: Herminie; Les Nuits d’été; Ravel: Shéhérazade. Véronique Gens, soprano; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire conducted by John Axelrod. Ondine. $16.99.

Delius: A Mass of Life; Prelude and Idyll. Janice Watson, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Alan Opie, baritone; Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

René Clausen: Choral Works. Kansas City Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Adolphus Hailstork: Symphony No. 1; Three Spirituals; An American Port of Call; Fanfare on Amazing Grace; Whitman’s Journey—1. Launch Out on Endless Seas. Kevin Deas, baritone; Virginia Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

      The beauties of which voices are capable, singly or together, have intrigued and inspired composers for many centuries – likely for as long as there has been music, which is a very long time indeed.  The beauty of Véronique Gens’ soprano is immediately apparent in her new recording of Berlioz and Ravel – repertoire with which she has not been closely associated, since she is known mainly for her work with Baroque music and Mozart.  But she acquits herself beautifully here, her rich, expressive voice and faultless pronunciation making all three works on this Ondine CD as emotionally and musically involving as they can be.  Herminie is the secular cantata for which Berlioz famously failed to win the Prix de Rome in 1828.  The Premier Grand Prix that year went to Guillaume Despréaux, a composer of so little note that although his birth year is known (1803), his year of death is not (he mainly composed for the musical theater of his time).  And the Deuxième Grand Prix in 1828 went to the almost equally obscure Pierre-Julien Nargeot (1799-1891).  Under the circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that Berlioz’ Herminie has stolid elements, as befits a work written to order and according to rigid specifications; but it also has considerable beauty, to which Gens is quite sensitive.  And its first movement presents what would later become the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830.  Les Nuits d’été is even later (1841) and represents fully mature Berlioz – although, interestingly, the version for soprano and orchestra was not created until 1856 (the work was originally for baritone, contralto or mezzo-soprano with piano, although it is very rarely performed that way nowadays).  Four of the six songs in the cycle are on the slow and dreamy side, and Gens’ expressiveness is fully on display in them – but she also does a commendable job with the two liveliest songs, Villanelle and L’île inconnue.  Ravel’s Shéhérazade is of course a much later work (1903), but the sensibilities of the three Tristan Klingsor poems have much in common with those of the Berlioz works, and Gens handles this music with the same sensitivity and vocal beauty that she brings to the earlier compositions.  The Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire under John Axelrod provides supple and idiomatic backup throughout, making this a CD filled with delights.

      The pleasures are more rarefied in Naxos’ two-CD set of Delius' A Mass of Life and Prelude and Idyll.  Delius himself is something of an acquired taste, the subtle beauties of his scoring tending to make many of his poetic works sound almost monochromatic.  A Mass of Life is a very extended piece, lasting more than an hour and a half, and is in many ways the antithesis of a traditional Latin Mass, taking as its text a series of passages from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.  The Mass dates to 1905 but incorporates a revised version of “Midnight Song,” also taken Nietzsche’s work, which Delius had written in 1898.  Delius is primarily known for his smaller-scale music, and A Mass of Life is his largest concert work – and is, in truth, a bit much to take in a single setting, although that is how it was designed to be heard.  David Hill leads the work with sensitivity and the sort of slow, meandering flow that is typical of Delius, but A Mass of Life is not a piece that will likely generate great enthusiasm for itself or its composer; as a result, this release gets a (+++) rating.  The Mass is joined here by a later work, Prelude and Idyll (1932), which originated in the discarded music for an opera called Margot la rouge but was changed by Delius into a purely orchestral, somewhat meandering piece about the transience of life and love.

      “Life and Breath” is the title of a new Chandos CD of choral works by René Clausen (born 1953), and this too is a (+++) release that will be an acquired taste for many listeners.  There is a mass here, too, the first one Clausen has written: Mass for Double Choir (2011), a much more traditional work than Delius’ in many ways, using the title “Mass” in its more-accepted organized-religion sense and here receiving its première recording.  In five movements and featuring two soprano soloists (Sarah Tannehill and Pamela Williamson), Clausen’s Mass breaks little new compositional ground but does show the continuing power that this old affirmation of faith retains over at least some contemporary composers.  The other works here draw in a similar way on traditional religious themes, some of which go back to Bach or even beyond: All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord (1978), O magnum mysterium (2009), Magnificat (1988), Prayer (2009, a gently dissonant work featuring words of Mother Teresa), O vos omnes (1986) and Set me as a Seal (1989, in which discussions between God and humans occur from both points of view).  Two works based on William Blake’s poems and written in 2009, The Tyger and The Lamb, are somewhat less traditionally religious, but all the works on this CD – all of which are performed quite well by the Kansas City Chorale under Charles Bruffy – tend to blend together, since their themes and the underlying primarily-tonal structure that Clausen favors in his compositions are so similar.  A disc including a few of his secular works, such as Jabberwocky or Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, would make for more-interesting listening, although those of a traditional religious orientation will find much that is meaningful on this CD.

      Walt Whitman considered life from a humanist and transcendentalist rather than traditionally religious perspective, with the result that his works became the basis of music by such kindred spirits as Charles Ives and Ralph Vaughan Williams – and even Howard Hanson, who came at life from a somewhat different direction but, like Vaughan Williams, called one of his works “A Sea Symphony” and based it on Whitman’s texts.  Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941) uses some of those texts, too, in Whitman’s Journey—1. Launch Out on Endless Seas, part of an all-Hailstork (++++) CD on Naxos.  Hailstork’s communication is forthright and vivid, and he interprets “endless seas” more metaphorically than did Vaughan Williams and Hanson, looking at life itself as a sea and one’s life progress as a journey.  Written in 2005, Whitman’s Journey has hymnlike qualities and an overall hopeful outlook.  The other pieces on this CD are orchestral but no less effectively communicative.  Symphony No. 1 (1988) alternates bright and lyrical sections to good effect within a traditional four-movement structure and a modest time span (21 minutes).  Three Spirituals (2005) were originally written for organ but sound just fine in orchestral guise, thanks in part to the sheer familiarity of the tunes: “Everytime I Feel the Spirit,” “Kum Ba Yah” and “Oh Freedom.”  Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003) also uses a well-known spiritual as the basis for a nicely balanced orchestral arrangement.  And on the entirely secular side, An American Port of Call (1985) neatly evokes the bustling busy-ness of Norfolk, Virginia.  Hailstork has written many works for the Virginia Symphony, which plays his music with all the verve and color it deserves – and with a sure sense of familiarity.  JoAnn Falletta, a longtime and strong advocate of less-known music with the Buffalo Philharmonic, is also Music Director of the Virginia Symphony, which she leads with a firm and knowing hand and from which she extracts nicely balanced sound.  The directness of expression of Hailstork’s music, coupled with the considerable skill with which he composes it, make this CD a pleasure in both its choral and orchestral offerings.

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