November 26, 2014


Dvořák: Requiem. Christine Libor, soprano; Ewa Wolak, alto; Daniel Kirch, tenor; Janusz Monarcha, bass; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

The Wonder of Christmas. Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $9.99.

Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy; George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad—Rhapsody for Orchestra; Gerald Finzi: Requiem da Camera; Ivor Gurney: The Trumpet. Roderick Williams, baritone; Jeremy Irons, speaker; City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. Naxos. $9.99.

Villa-Lobos: Symphony No.10, “Amerindia” (Sumé, Father of Fathers). Leonardo Neiva, baritone; Saulo Javan, bass; São Paulo Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Isaac Karabtchevsky. Naxos. $9.99.

Hannibal Lokumbe: Can You Hear God Crying? Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Rodrick Dixon, tenor; Homayun Sakhi, Afghan rubâb; Paula Holloway, vocalist; choirs, Music Liberation Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Dirk Brossé. Naxos DVD. $19.99.

     Three of these new releases include works that, despite their specificity, seek universality and attain it to the extent of the quality of the performances. The other two make no real attempt to reach out beyond a core audience and therefore limit their effectiveness, despite the skill with which they are sung and played. Dvořák’s Requiem, like the many other settings of the Latin text, is essentially church music and essentially Catholic, but like Verdi’s somewhat earlier Requiem (1874; Dvořák’s dates to 1891), it looks for wide involvement in and acceptance of its underlying message of peace and compassion. Dvořák’s work is in many ways the antithesis of Verdi’s, which is strikingly operatic and tends to bowl listeners over through sheer intensity and a kind of exuberance whose appropriateness may be arguable but is scarcely to be ignored. Dvořák, on the other hand, here creates a reflective, moving work that looks back to the early years of the 19th century (Cherubini’s Requiem, which Dvořák’s somewhat resembles, was first performed in to 1816) and seeks to comfort rather than dismay – even in the Dies irae and Tuba mirum sections. The piece’s very gentleness tends to work against it in some performances: it goes on for more than an hour and a half without any significant drama beyond that of the text and the events to which the words refer. It is a reverent work but can easily become a dull one – which makes the moving performance led by Antoni Wit for Naxos all the more welcome. Wit in no way downplays the beauty and religious fervor of the music, but he manages to keep the Requiem moving at a pace that retains audience attention and involvement without ever seeming rushed. The result is a well-sung, well-played performance that is highly involving even for those from different religious traditions or none – a work that suggests an underlying interconnection of humanity on a profound spiritual level.

     The mixture of 18 pieces sung by the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison on a Naxos CD called The Wonder of Christmas is altogether less complex; it is also more accessible and easier to absorb. Unlike most Christmas releases, which tend to present a secular-and-sacred mixture, this one focuses on the holiday’s religious underpinnings (which were actually adopted and adapted by early Christians from the Roman Saturnalia and other winter festivals). To the Latin songs Nesciens mater virgo virum and Ecce concipies are here added English-language ones celebrating the Christian belief in God’s birth in human form: Once in Royal David’s City, O Holy Night, Who Is He in Yonder Stall, Gabriel’s Message and others. Even familiar carols that are frequently sung in secular Christmas celebrations here resonate with their underlying religious meaning: Ding Dong! Merrily on High, The First Nowell, The Holly and the Ivy and more. The reverence with which the works are performed, and the sheer beauty of the singing, make this a first-rate seasonal disc that attempts to show the universality of the traditional message of peace on Earth by exploring in some depth the notion of a loving divinity appearing in person, in human form. The non-Christian and non-religious may not find the message particularly appealing, but the joy and warmth of the performances are winning even for those for whom the words are only words, devoid of substantial spiritual significance.

     The spirituality of the four works on a Naxos CD called Flowers of the Field is tied not to a time of celebration or peace but to the opposite: a time of terror and war. All four are, in part or whole, composers’ reactions to World War I, and all reach out far beyond those directly affected by the war and its depredations to everyone who has experienced loss in wartime, and by extension to all who have known loss in any form and under any circumstances. The moving extension in which mourning for individuals becomes something of greater scope is especially clear in Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, for narrator, small mixed (and mostly wordless) chorus, and small orchestra. The work, using elements of Matthew Arnold’s poems The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis, is far from typical for Vaughan Williams, its pervasive melancholy and nostalgia recalling the composer’s lost friends and resolving only at the end toward a sort of resignation that seems to stop somewhere short of full acceptance. Movingly performed under the direction of Hilary Davan Wetton, it crowns a disc that also includes music by lesser composers who, in the case of these specific works, express themselves with equal intensity. George Butterworth, killed in action during the Great War at the age of 31, is best known for his settings of poems by A.E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad, but his rhapsody based on the poems is much less familiar. It continues in purely orchestral form the theme of transience with which the poetry is preoccupied, and stands both as an epilogue to the vocal settings and as a meaningful work in its own right. Also on this CD are two world première recordings. The short The Trumpet by Ivor Gurney, who survived World War I despite being shot and gassed in 1917, is a fairly straightforward but nevertheless heartfelt plea to abandon war. It is heard here as edited and orchestrated by Philip Lancaster. Also here is Requiem da Camera by Gerald Finzi, as edited and completed by Christian Alexander – a work mourning the deaths of fellow artists and in particular that of composer, pianist and organist Ernest Farrar, killed on the Western Front in 1918 at the age of 33. An expansive and emotive piece, Finzi’s reaches out beyond individual artists to mourn the destruction, by implication, of art itself, and thus of the uplift that it can provide. The sensitivity of the music is well-communicated here, and the performers make the entire CD into a very moving experience.

     Elements of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Tenth Symphony are moving as well, but this large-scale work from 1954 makes little attempt to go beyond its original intention, which was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of São Paulo and to pay tribute to the city’s founder, Saint José de Anchieta. Villa-Lobos’ designation of this piece as a symphony is somewhat puzzling, since it is much closer to a cantata or oratorio despite its purely orchestral first movement. In fact, the new Naxos recording describes it as an oratorio, and certainly it has many elements of that form – although it is, in totality, something of a hybrid. The first movement, called “The Earth and Its Creatures,” has rhythmic vitality but never engages listeners in the way the first movement of Mahler’s Third or the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, both of which have analogous purposes, do. Villa-Lobos becomes more convincing in the second movement, “War Cry,” which is gentle rather than stentorian and closer to a lament than a battle scene. The third movement, a scherzo called “Iurupichuna” for a type of monkey known for its restless movement, leads into the heart of the work: the fourth movement, which takes up nearly half the piece’s overall length and is called “The Voice of the Earth and the Appearance of Father Anchieta.” Here, several structural elements come together: Villa-Lobos uses the Tupi language for the natives, Latin for the Christian missionaries and Portuguese for the European settlers of Brazil, and he also mixes simple native melodies with tonally unsettled music for the outsiders, birdsong, percussive effects, and syncopation intended to represent Afro-Brazilian people. The final movement presents “Glory in Heavens and Peace on Earth,” a paean to the founding of the city, and has a rather conventional triumphalism about it. The overall piece is only intermittently effective: parts are quite beautiful, others sound like not-very-creative film music, and what ties the work together will be meaningful only to listeners steeped in the history that it celebrates – others will find the piece overlong, overindulgent and at times simply tiring. Isaac Karabtchevsky handles the possible dullness primarily by using brisk tempos, most of which work, although they sometimes give a lovely melody short shrift.  Karabtchevsky makes an unusual decision by having the entire tenor section of the choir sing the passages that Villa-Lobos allocated to solo tenor, and this gives those sections added emphasis but leads to them overshadowing the parts for solo baritone and bass. As a whole, this reading is fine, but the work itself is too constricted in ambition and too limited in appeal to give the recording more than a (+++) rating.

     A Naxos DVD of Hannibal Lokumbe’s Can You Hear God Crying? also makes little attempt to go beyond a core audience and also gets a (+++) rating. Lokumbe, a fine trumpeter and leading exponent of expressing African-American experiences through music, calls this work a “spiritatorio,” an awkward designation that simply means that, like Villa-Lobos’ Tenth, it is a mixture of forms that does not easily fit into any one musical category. It does, however, fit into a narrative category, being yet another work among many bemoaning the suffering and hardship of Africans sold into slavery (generally by other Africans, although the work does not mention this), the forced migration to the New World on a slave ship of Lokumbe’s own great-grandfather, and the endurance and  courage of African-Americans that eventually lead to healing and celebration. There is not a single element here that has not been told many times before, in many forms; nor is there anything especially creative in Lokumbe’s mixture of classical forms (primarily chamber music) with jazz, gospel, spirituals and West African prayers. Just as many Jewish composers endlessly create works dealing with Biblical hardship and the horrors of the Holocaust, so African-American ones rehash again and again the same themes of slavery and its aftermath in much the same way. Can You Hear God Crying? is effective enough in both music and storytelling (Lokumbe wrote the libretto himself), and this world première recording nicely captures an enthusiastic and heartfelt performance in Philadelphia – the piece was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the city’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Those interested in yet another tale of African-American hardships, the evils of slavery, and the celebration of African heritage, told like so many others in a combinatorial and eclectic musical language, will find this a work that plays directly to their concerns and predispositions. It does nothing to move beyond them or to draw in a wider audience, but that is clearly not its intent: unlike, say, the Dvořák Requiem, Lokumbe’s work wants only to preach to the choir and bring forth from it a chorus of “amens.”

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