April 17, 2014


Orff: Carmina Burana. Sarah Tynan, soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Rodion Pogossov, baritone; Trinity Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. LPO. $9.99.

Mozart: Requiem (reconstruction of first performance); Misericordias Domini. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Rowan Hellier, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass; Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Bach: St. John Passion. James Gilchrist, evangelist; Matthew Rose, Jesus; Ashley Riches, Pilate; Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Sarah Connolly, alto; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Christopher Purves, bass; Choir of the AAM and Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Shostakovich: Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare; Annie Laurie, Scottish Ballad; Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Ondine. $16.99.

     Excellent singing, some unusual repertoire, top-quality sound – these recordings have all it takes to delight listeners both immediately and over the long term. Not that Orff’s Carmina Burana is unusual: it may be the most-familiar music heard on any of these releases. The deliberate vulgarity of the words and avowed “primitiveness” of the scoring come through especially clearly in Hans Graf’s performance on LPO, a live recording from April 2013. This grand choral celebration of life and love has become so much a staple of the modern repertoire, both choral and orchestral, that it is easy for singers and orchestra members to “coast” while performing it – the music is so infectious that it stands up even when handled mundanely. But there is no coasting here: the London Philharmonic plays with great verve and spirit, all the soloists deliver their lines with gusto and firmness, and the Trinity Boys Choir and London Philharmonic Choir complement each other beautifully and make what is essentially a secular, choral oratorio into the deliberately over-the-top paean to worldly pleasures and their inevitable loss that Orff intended when he wrote it in 1935-36. It is worth mentioning that Orff saw the piece as a stage work, including in its full title a reference to imaginibus magicis (“magic images”); but although Carmina Burana is almost never given as originally intended – and is only rarely performed as the first part of Orff’s Trionfi, which also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite – the work has truly achieved a concert-hall life on its own merits, as music that seems simple because of its bounce, rhythmic vitality and hummable tunes (including its actual “humming chorus”). There is real brilliance in Orff’s assemblage and orchestration of these medieval poems in three languages (Latin, French and German, all in forms not much like those known today); and one thing Graf does particularly well is to allow the music to flow naturally while also letting Sarah Tynan, Andrew Kennedy and Rodion Pogossov extract from it what depth it possesses.

     Plumbing the depths of Mozart’s incomplete Requiem is a more-difficult task: this is far weightier music, for all its considerably lighter scoring. John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have come up with a remarkably effective and moving way of handling the music – one that affirms the work’s greatness while at the same time allowing the imperfections of its completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr to remain. It has become commonplace in recent decades to find “better” ways to finish the Requiem than those of Süssmayr, which have long been acknowledged as lacking, notably in the Sanctus and Osanna. As a result, the Süssmayr version is no longer as well-known as it used to be, and Butt’s decision to revive it for Linn Records is a rather bold one. Even more intriguingly, what he has done is to use David Black’s new edition of the Süssmayr version as the basis of this recording, and that edition makes some details of Süssmayr’s completion clearer than they were in the past. Black does not obscure the deficiencies of Süssmayr’s work, notably in orchestration, but his edition does allow the Requiem to flower forth as it was heard in Mozart’s own time, shortly after the composer’s death. Butt actually makes a strong attempt to re-create the first public performance of this work, on January 2, 1793, and while the extent of his success is a matter for Butt and his fellow scholars to discuss, there is no doubt that the Dunedin Consort reading is an absolutely first-rate one. It is also one that truly does sound the way it would have sounded in Mozart’s own time, to the extent that modern scholarship can determine that. This alone makes for a superb recording – that is, this plus the absolutely assured singing and historically informed, top-quality instrumental playing. And Butt provides context for the Requiem in other ways as well: the recording includes Mozart’s early Misericordias Domini, K. 222, an offertory that is in the same key as the Requiem and offers a thorough exploration of contrapuntal techniques as Mozart understood and employed them. This makes Misericordias Domini a fascinating companion piece for the Requiem – and even that is not all. Butt also offers a reconstruction of the first two Requiem movements, the Requiem aeternam and Kyrie, as they were played (or are believed to have been played) at a mass for Mozart held five days after his death – that is, on December 10, 1791. They differ in sound in some fascinating ways from the movements as we now know them – and, again, while the details of the differences will be of most interest to scholars, the excellence of the Dunedin Consort performance makes the music accessible and highly involving for every listener.

     The excellent Academy of Ancient Music performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, on the group’s own AAM label, is equally penetrating and emotionally trenchant.  This is the earliest surviving Passion by Bach, dating originally to 1724 (in which version it is heard here) and revised by him many times, into the 1740s. To a greater extent than the better-known St. Matthew Passion, this one is intense and highly expressive, less peace-pervaded and more dramatic. And it is the drama on which Richard Egarr’s direction focuses, with the recitatives and choruses displaying near-operatic intensity (albeit within appropriate historical bounds) that contrasts in fine fashion with the more-reflective chorales, ariosos and arias. Egarr, who conducts from the harpsichord, has a very strong sense of period style, instrumental balance, and relationship between singers and instruments – and between soloists (including Andrew Kennedy, also heard in Graf’s Carmina Burana) and chorus. One of the most-apparent excellences in this recording is the pervasive sense of appropriate balance – everyone plays or sings with just the right level of involvement with everyone else. Yet despite its technical excellence, this reading is by no means dry – indeed, it is quite the opposite, being presented with considerable flair and a greater sense of dramatic development than is heard in many readings of Bach’s solemn music. Whether the St. John Passion is in any sense “better” than the St. Matthew Passion, or alternatively of less account, is a question that is ultimately unanswerable and meaningless: Bach wrote the works at different times in his life (when considering the 1724 version of the St. John Passion) and used texts that, for all the familiarity of the story, emphasize different elements of it. There is more immediacy and personal involvement in the St. John Passion, a greater sense of transcendence and fervor in the St. Matthew Passion – and no reason whatsoever to prefer one over the other, especially when such a top-quality performance of the earlier work is now available.

     The performances are also top-notch, and the music highly involving and almost completely unknown, on a new Shostakovich CD featuring Gerald Finley in his debut recording for Ondine. All three works here are sort-of or partial world première recordings: this is the first-ever recording of Annie Laurie; the first recorded offering in the original Italian of Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Shostakovich set the poems in Russian); and only the second time Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare has been recorded in its orchestral version (the disc describes this as a world première, but there was a 1986 Russian recording by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with bass Anatoly Safiulin; this is, however, the first time the work has been offered in the orchestral version and sung in English). Hearing a full CD of Shostakovich’s vocal music with words in English and Italian is a rather dislocating experience, and quite a pleasant, even invigorating one. There is nothing special in his Annie Laurie orchestration, but Finley’s rich voice makes the folk song involving and heartfelt. The Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare are more substantial, with, for example, the pessimistic intensity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXVI dovetailing neatly with  the composer’s lugubrious side – and providing a fine contrast to other views of mortality, such as Burns’ Macpherson’s Farewell. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling participates fully in the music, serving as partner rather than merely as backup – a stance that makes perfect sense when playing Shostakovich, and is particularly apt in the longest and most substantial work here, Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. This dates to 1975, the last year of Shostakovich’s life, and was one of the final works he completed – and it has all the pointedness and carefully sculpted peculiarity of pieces such as Symphony No. 15 of 1971. The 11 poems in the suite are highly expressive in a generally forthright manner, arranged so they move cleverly between the brackets of the first, Truth, and the last, Immortality. The full participation of the orchestra is crucial to the effect of such poems as Creativity, while its willingness to remain delicately in the background is equally important in ones such as Morning. Finley performs the entire suite with high involvement and understanding, and his pronunciation is exemplary; Sanderling, who was a friend of Shostakovich, brings to the CD an intimate understanding of the composer’s mindset and compositional techniques. This is an unusual and highly rewarding disc that is a significant addition to the recorded Shostakovich repertoire.

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