August 23, 2012

(+++) VOCALS OLD AND NEW


Music from the Eton Choirbook. Tonus Peregrinus conducted by Antony Pitts. Naxos. $9.99.

The Guerra Manuscript, Volume 2. Juan Sancho, tenor; Ars Atlántica conducted by Manuel Vilas. Naxos. $9.99.

20. musica intima. ATMA Classique. $7.99.

Mary Ann Joyce-Walter: Cantata for the Children of Terezin; Aceldama. Oxnaya Oleskaya, soprano; Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra and King Singers of Kiev. Ravello. $16.99.

Robert Stern: Shofar—An Oratorio in Four Parts; Ronald Perera: Why I Wake Early—Eight Poems of Mary Oliver for Mixed Chorus, String Quartet and Piano. Coro Allegro. Navona. $13.99.

      With the exception of the now-obsolete castrato, human vocal ranges have remained largely unchanged for the 500-plus years in which Western music has been written in forms that remain known and recognizable today. The subject matter has certainly changed and evolved, and there is of course a degree of tonal and performance freedom in 20th- and 21st-century music that goes beyond what was available (or sought) in earlier works.  But the desirable qualities of the human voice remain as they have been for centuries: purity, accuracy, high tonal quality, and the ability to subsume oneself into the lyrics.  Music from the Eton Choirbook has all these characteristics in excellent performances of five-century-old works taken from a manuscript found in Eton College Chapel.  The composers are little known today, if at all: Walter Lambe, Richard Davy, John Browne, Hugh Kellyk, Robert Wylkynson and William, Monk of Stratford.  And the works, one and all, are on religious themes that are presented with restrained intensity and a deep sense of belief, from Davy’s St. Matthew Passion to Browne’s Stabat Mater and Kellyk’s Magnificat, which here receives its première recording.  But what gives this Naxos CD its communicative power, even in our more-secular time, is the tonal richness and beautiful ensemble work of Tonus Peregrinus under Antony Pitts.  Written for a much earlier age, these pieces continue to have a good deal to say to ours.

      The works in the Guerra Manuscript are not quite as old as those in the Eton Choirbook, dating to the second half of the 17th century.  And these pieces are, in the main, avowedly secular: there are more than 100 of them, primarily songs on various worldly topics, most of them anonymous.  There is nothing defiantly risqué, satirical or irreverent here – that is, nothing similar to the songs in the 254-poem Benediktbeuern manuscript that inspired Carl Orff to write Carmina Burana.  Instead, there are songs of an absent lover (Amante ausente y triste), of a present one (Dichoso yo que adoro), of youth (Yo joven), of beauty (Suma belleza), of the outdoors (Frescos airecillos), and occasionally of faith (Manda la piedad divina).  Tenor Juan Sancho brings a sure sense of style and an appropriate level of understated emotion to these works on the second Naxos CD devoted to this manuscript.  Eligio Luis Quinteiro on baroque guitars and Manual Vilas on Spanish baroque harp help Ars Atlántica provide just the right instrumental backdrop, and Manuel Vilas – who transcribed all the songs – directs with sensitivity.  These works seem in some ways more exotic than those from the Eton Choirbook, whose texts at least are familiar from much other religious music.  And like the sacred music from Eton, the mostly secular songs from the Guerra Manuscript have things to say to today’s listeners, if we will only pay attention.

      Similarly, the varied works on a new musica intima CD with the simple title 20 speak well to a modern audience – and in fact speak in more languages than the Latin of the Eton Choirbook or the Spanish of the Guerra Manuscript.  This disc is a 20-year retrospective for the ensemble – hence the title – and includes English, French and Inuit works as well as some in Latin.  This group is Canadian and is known for championing contemporary Canadian music, but the pieces heard here are from a variety of time periods and are written in a variety of musical styles, from Benjamin Britten’s Jesus, as thou art our saviour to arrangements of the popular songs Shenandoah and Loch Lomond.  Indeed, all the arrangements, often by members of musica intima, are attractive, ranging from the straightforward to the complex, and the singing throughout is knowing and beautifully integrated.  The pieces heard here are excerpted from five earlier ATMA Classique releases, whose identifying catalogue numbers are provided for the benefit of listeners who may want to hear more works that are similar to certain of those presented on this disc.  The attractiveness of this compilation is not thematic – the pieces have little relationship to one another – but aural: the singing is just wonderful to hear.

      The singing is fine on Ravello’s new CD of music by Mary Ann Joyce-Walter, too, but few listeners will want this disc primarily because of the quality of the performances.  This is a “cause” CD with a focus on some of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and a sense of their historical resonance.  The main work, Cantata for the Children of Terezin, uses poems written by children incarcerated in the Terezin (Theresienstedt) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II.  Joyce-Walter’s music is on the obvious side, contrasting the predominantly innocent words of the nine poems with the known fate of the many Jews imprisoned at the camp and then transported to death camps such as Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka.  The intense pathos of the underlying story – a necessity for full understanding and knowledgeable response to Joyce-Walter’s music – contrasts with the naïveté and beauty of poems such as “A Little Mouse” and “Someday.”  The poetry is heartrending, the music is supportive of the theme, and the overall effect is certainly emotional, but not in any particularly unexpected ways.  The same is true of Aceldama, a broader meditation on human suffering, whose title refers to the potter's field near Jerusalem bought with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas had been paid for betraying Christ.  The focus here is on 21st-century atrocities rather than those of the 20th century, but the work’s message is much the same: suffering and horror on such a large scale are incomprehensible, understandable only through a look at a microcosm such as individual stories or the poetry of doomed children.  Joyce-Walter’s works are well-intentioned and well-performed here, but neither they nor their dour subject matter will be immediately appealing to listeners other than those already dedicated to ensuring that the atrocities of recent times are memorialized in ways designed to guarantee that they and their victims will not be forgotten.

      The new Navona CD by Coro Allegro is a “cause” project, too: the Boston-based ensemble draws its members from the LGBT community and supporters.  But if the darkness of Joyce-Walter’s music is underlying and perpetual, the works by Massachusetts composers Robert Stern (born 1934) and Ronald Perera (born 1941) are structured to begin in light, move into dark, then emerge into a kind of positive affirmation. Stern’s Shofar is a four-part oratorio inspired by the four calls of the shofar, a ram’s horn used in Jewish ceremonies; Perera’s Why I Wake Early uses eight poems by Mary Oliver (born 1935) to portray the mood of a day that begins and ends early (“Morning at Great Pond” at the start, the title poem at the conclusion) and delves into more-solemn moods in the middle.  Stern’s work is more intense and dramatic, Perera’s more pastoral and contained.  Neither breaks any particularly new compositional ground, but both are well-constructed and moving, although Stern’s tends to lay its emotions on rather thickly and at perhaps too much length – Perera’s greater delicacy hits emotional notes more effectively.  The performances are quite well done, nicely evoking the spirit of both pieces, and although it is true that neither work here will likely make a listener sit up and take notice of any highly innovative vocal approaches, it is also true that neither will disappoint listeners primarily interested in the beauties that modern composers, treating modern-day themes, continue to pull from the same vocal ranges that their predecessors employed for the last five centuries and more.

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