September 04, 2014
(+++) SONGS OF PRAISE AND WONDER
Mendelssohn: Elijah. Rosalind Plowright, soprano; Linda Finnie, contralto; Arthur Davies, tenor; Willard White, bass; Jeremy Budd, treble; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Moses Pergament: Den Judiska Sängen (The Jewish Song). Birgit Nordin, soprano; Sven-Olof Eliasson, tenor; Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James DePriest. Caprice. $19.99.
Sacred Love—Music of Yuri Falik, Arturs Maskats and Georgy Sviridov. Ieva Ezeriete, soprano; Aleksandrs Antoņenko, tenor; Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Kļava. Ondine. $16.99.
Dan Locklair: Choral Music. Bel Canto Company conducted by David Pegg, with Ann Doyle, piano; The Choral Art Society conducted by Robert Russell, with Prometheus Chamber Players and Shirley Curry, piano. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
Mendelssohn’s Elijah gets a rather old-fashioned reading from the late Richard Hickox (1948-2008) in Chandos’ re-release of a 1989 performance – and it is hard not to wonder what Hickox would have done in a newer recording with greater sensitivity to historic performance practices. There is grandness and epic scale to this Elijah, but it is also rather overblown and over-dramatic, more operatic than the music can really sustain over more than two hours. Certainly there is grandeur and spirituality aplenty here, but there is also somewhat too much neither-here-nor-there in the reading: it is neither as expansive and large-scale as in the work’s original performances, which often involved hundreds of singers, nor as streamlined and classically poised as more-modern versions that attempt to show the ways in which Elijah stands as testimony to Mendelsohn’s strong roots in the works of Bach and Handel. The singing is on the bland side, with Willard White a rather disappointing Elijah – he tends to hit notes slightly too low, and does not emote very effectively. The other soloists are all right but not outstanding. And Hickox is not at his best here: his conducting is curiously bland in some sections, although it does catch fire periodically – part of what will make Hickox fans wonder what the conductor might have done with this work as he matured in later years. All in all, this is a good but scarcely great Elijah, its English text clearly enunciated by the soloists and somewhat less so by the chorus, its music played well and often dramatically, but not always convincingly. Certainly there is great drama in Elijah, as in the competition between Jehovah and Baal; but there is also transcendence, especially toward the work’s end, and that is largely absent here.
Mendelssohn was born Jewish, although baptized as a Lutheran when he was seven years old. Elijah is taken from the Old Testament but is certainly not used by Mendelssohn to showcase Judaism as a religion in any significant sense. Other composers, however, have thoroughly embraced the Jewish experience and sought to express it musically. For example, Moses Pergament (1893-1977), a Finnish-Swedish composer who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Helsinki, created Den Judiska Sängen (The Jewish Song) in a three-week period in 1944, when the full extent of the Holocaust and Nazi depredations was becoming known. The work has not been performed in its entirety since 1974 – and it is the 1974 performance that is now available on the Caprice label. Pergament was best known for his music criticism and analysis, and for his advocacy of new musical trends even when he said he could not understand them (which was his comment on electronic music). He immersed himself in Jewish musical traditions, even learning ancient musical notation, and incorporated both sacred and popular Jewish musical idioms into his own works – along with jazz, which was slow to emerge as a significant component of modern Swedish classical music. Den Judiska Sängen follows a story arc from Biblical through modern times, from emotions of intense bitterness to feelings of pride and to an eventual level of hope and confidence in the future – being in this way, if few others, similar to Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Musically, Den Judiska Sängen sets lyrics taken from two of Swedish author and art historian Ragnar Josephson’s poetry collections, The Chain (1912) and Jewish Poems (1916). The work contains musical interludes as well as sung sections, and the Adagio and Intermezzo drammatico are in fact two of its most affecting and effective movements. The vocal elements, for soprano and tenor soloists both with and without chorus, are uniformly well-written, and the work as a whole emerges as an effective and unusual modern oratorio that will intrigue listeners unfamiliar with its subject matter and composer – Pergament was well-known in his time but is almost completely obscure today.
Also very little known are the three composers heard on a new Ondine CD featuring the Latvian Radio Choir, which is considered one of the best chamber choirs in Europe. The disc is called Sacred Love, but in fact mixes the sacred with the secular in works by Yuri Falik (1936-2009), Arturs Maskats (born 1947) and Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). The music ranges from the traditionally and expressively religious (Falik’s Your Temple, Lord and Maskats’ Let My Prayer Be Granted) to works that celebrate nature and the seasons (Falik’s Autumn and Maskats’ Spring) and ones focusing on personal relationships and love (Sviridov’s About Lost Youth and Natasha). Five of the pieces include solo parts sung by two noted Latvian singers, soprano Ieva Ezeriete and tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko; the remaining works are entirely choral. The choir sings very well indeed, with clarity of enunciation and sensitivity of phrasing, and Sigvards Kļava directs it well. The music is intermittently interesting without ever really impressing through its expressiveness or design – indeed, there is little distinctive in the composers’ individual styles and little to distinguish one from the next, although Maskats does paint larger and more intricate musical canvases than do Falik and Sviridov. The CD will be of most interest to listeners interested in modern Eastern European vocal music and those who have found earlier performances by the Latvian Radio Choir, such as its recording of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, to be attractive.
The attractions are multiple in a new MSR Classics release of choral music by Dan Locklair (born 1949). Like the ones on the Ondine CD, the works on this two-disc set encompass both the religious and the worldly, and here they also span a decade and a half of creativity and thus show Locklair’s changing compositional concerns and techniques. The first CD, featuring the Bel Canto Company under David Pegg, includes Holy Canticles (1996), Alleluia Dialogues (1990), Instant Culture (1985), On Cats (1978), Break Away! (1983), Dona Nobis Pacem (also 1983), Proclaim the Lord (1985), A Christmas Carol (1981), and Three Christmas Motets (1993). The second disc, performed by The Choral Art Society directed by Robert Russell, offers Windswept (the trees) (1992), For Amber Waves (1993), Tapestries (1983), Brief Mass (1993), Changing Perceptions (1987), and Epitaph (also 1987). The juxtapositions are sometimes telling, sometimes whimsical, and in the case of Brief Mass and Changing Perceptions genuinely thoughtful. The amusements of On Cats, the nature scenes of Windswept (which includes some fine a cappella writing), the straightforward religious expression of Brief Mass, all show aspects of Locklair’s personality and musical concerns. The singing and instrumental backup are well-handled throughout. Locklair’s choral music is more accessible than many other modern choral works, and there is certainly a lot of it here – indeed, there is likely too much for any listener not already enamored of the composer. His fans will welcome this compilation of recordings from 1995 and 1996, and members of choruses that have sung Locklair will enjoy hearing some pieces with which they are likely to be familiar, complemented by ones they probably do not know. For listeners with limited interest in modern choral works, however, this release of two-and-a-quarter hours of music will likely be a bit too much.