September 11, 2014


Copland: Lincoln Portrait; David Lang: mountain; Nico Muhly: Pleasure Ground. Maya Angelou, narrator; Nathan Wyatt, baritone; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Langrée. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.

The Bells of Dawn: Russian Sacred and Folk Songs. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; The Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing” conducted by Lev Kantorovich. Ondine. $16.99.

Sing Thee Nowell. New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass); Sarah Brailey and Elizabeth Baber Weaver, sopranos. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen. A film by Michael Stillwater. Hänssler Classic DVD. $29.99.

     It is a fair bet that Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait will be the main drawing card for a new Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra CD on the orchestra’s own label, because the familiar work is narrated by the late Maya Angelou, who is prominently pictured on the CD case with conductor Louis Langrée. This release, the orchestra’s first with Langrée, features a Lincoln Portrait recorded live in November 2013, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And it is a fine performance of the work, narrated by Angelou with heartfelt intensity and played by the orchestra with all the solemnity and seriousness the occasion demanded. Objectively speaking, it is not really “better” as a musical/narrative reading than others, but Angelou’s recent death and the fact that the recording was made to mark a milestone in American history will make the CD attractive. But also speaking objectively, the remainder of the disc has much less to recommend it. The CD as a whole is very short – just 46 minutes – and couples the Copland with première recordings of two contemporary works of considerably less interest. One is David Lang’s mountain, spelled in that affected way (with a small “m,” an approach Lang has also used in other works, for no particular reason). This is said to be a Copland-inspired piece, but it pays no obvious homage to the earlier composer. It is a standard minimalist work, somewhat hypnotic in effect, replete with notes and echoes and slides and other typical-for-its-genre sounds. Nico Muhly’s Pleasure Ground, featuring baritone Nathan Wyatt, is described as inspired by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. It is as flat as a Midwest prairie and as esoteric as an academic course in architecture. Neither the words nor the music will be of wide interest, and indeed this whole CD seems very narrowly focused, targeting Cincinnati Symphony fans and people seeking an auditory souvenir of Maya Angelou’s life.

     Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s richly burnished baritone tends to be put at the service of almost any kind of music, and he tends to sing all of it in much the same way: intensely and feelingly but not always with much attention to composers’ individual styles or to the meaning of the words. The new Ondine release, The Bells of Dawn: Russian Sacred and Folk Songs, is typical Hvorostovsky in its eclecticism, vocal quality and inattention to the nuances and sometimes-significant stylistic differences among the songs. The composers featured here are scarcely household names: Dobri Khristov, Pavel Chesnokov, Mikhail Burmagin, Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, Aleksandr Varlamov, Elizaveta Shashina and Georgy Sviridov. Their works span two centuries, from Varlamov’s birth in 1801 to Sviridov’s death in 1998. But the stylistic differences among the pieces are nowhere near as significant as this time span would seem to indicate, and Hvorostovsky’s handling of the material makes all the songs sound more similar than different – with, to be sure, great beauty of tone and considerable expressiveness. The sacred songs are complemented, rather oddly, by half a dozen folk songs that also get the big, broad Hvorostovsky treatment, which tends somewhat to overpower their essential simplicity. Hvorostovsky’s fans will welcome this new collection, but those who are only casually interested in his singing will not find much that is special here.

     The works sung by New York Polyphony span even more time: seven centuries. And they have a singular focus: Christmas and its many meanings. The 20 works on this BIS recording range from medieval and Renaissance considerations of Christmas, including motets and carols, to modern pieces by contemporary composers Michael McGlynn, Andrew Smith and John Scott – with O Little Town of Bethlehem as a conclusion.  The juxtaposition of old music and new, of words in modern and older forms of English with ones in Latin, is a touch destabilizing, but the inclusion of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Five Carols, the highly focused singing and the fact that all the music deals with essentially the same topic give this very well-recorded SACD greater unity than might be expected. Particularly interesting sonically are the subtleties of difference between the countertenor and soprano registers. The works are uniformly well sung, both in individual parts and in voice groupings, and the disc as a whole is a very pleasant (if scarcely revelatory) seasonal offering that includes music that, if not great, is forthright, heartfelt and attractively devotional.

     Songs and choral works are the entire focus of American composer Morten Lauridsen (born 1943), the subject of a 2012 documentary film that is now available for fans of the man and his music. Michael Stillwater’s Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen follows the usual arc of biographical/hagiographical documentaries, showing Lauridsen at his Pacific Northwest home, basking in the beauty of the area, and offering commentaries on him and his work by poet Dana Gioia, conductors Paul Salamunovich and Robert Geary, composer/conductor Paul Mealor, and composer Alex Shapiro. Lauridsen is seen in rehearsals in California and Scotland, and the 56-minute film includes performances of several of his works: O Magnum Mysterium, Lux Aeterna, Madrigali, Dirait-on, and Nocturnes. A nicely made film of very limited interest, this is a chance for fans of Lauridsen’s music and members of choirs that have performed his pieces to learn more about the composer, to obtain some insight into his working methods and his thoughts about his art and craft. Because the film’s orientation is entirely positive, it is strictly for people who already know and admire Lauridsen and would like to find more reasons to do so. The included performances – by Volti, Con Anima, the San Francisco Choral Society and the Aberdeen University Choral Society – are all fine; but they are not really the point here. The intention of this Hänssler Classic DVD is simply to pay tribute to a well-regarded contemporary choral composer; and Stillwater’s film does so with attractive pacing, some lovely visuals, and many complimentary words from a wide variety of sources.

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