December 11, 2014


Simon Mayr: Il sogno di Partenope. Andrea Lauren Brown, Sara Hershkowitz, Caroline Adler, Florence Lousseau, Cornel Frey, Robert Sellier, Andreas Burkhart; Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $9.99.

Chant: Missa Latina. Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz and Ensemble Vox Gotica. Obsculta Music. $18.99.

Chant: Into the Light. Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz. Obsculta Music. $18.99.

Jake Schepps Quintet: Entwined—Music of Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Matt Flinner and Gyan Riley. Fine Mighty Records. $12.99.

     Here are some fascinating discs that are of limited rather than general interest but that can be just the thing for people looking to explore some less-often-visited corners of musical repertoire. Il sogno di Partenope on Naxos is part of a rather strange work, described on the CD as a “cantata opera,” that was written for a specific occasion by Simon Mayr (1763-1845). The reason it is only part of the piece is that the first act of the two-act work has disappeared, so only the second act is presented in this world première recording. Dedicated to King Ferdinand l on his birthday, the 1817 piece has a libretto by Urbano Lampredi (1761-1838), well known in his time as a classicist and intellectual. Lampredi and Mayr here create an allegorical cantata performed with recitatives and arias that make it sound like an opera – in fact, Il sogno di Partenope is a kind of bridge between opera seria and 19th-century operatic melodrama. Very little is obvious to modern listeners here. Even the title requires explanation: it refers to the dream (really a nightmare) of Parthenope, the tutelary goddess of Naples. The city’s Teatro San Carlos had been destroyed by fire on November 12-13, 1816, and Il sogno di Partenope was written for the opening of the rebuilt theater 11 months later. The missing first act of Mayr’s work focused on the fire and the character who caused it, Polyphlegon, an entirely imaginary mythological representation created to give the allegory a negative personage to balance the positive ones. Gods, muses, genii and evil spirits (the last group led by Polyphlegon) are involved in the cosmic cause at whose center is the theater, which is deemed the Temple of the Muses. After the first-act decline and destruction, the second act – the one recorded here – involves restoration of the theater by Olympic forces. The sad event vanishes like a bad dream – Mercury’s wand puts Parthenope to sleep – and a character known as Time Personified allows the rebuilt theater to shine anew. At the very end, Ferdinand is praised on his birthday for his beneficence and his gift to Naples of the rebuilt, shining theater. Il sogno di Partenope was intended to be performed only once, as was also the case with other works in its genre, and hearing it (or half of it) shorn of context is a distinctly odd experience. What we have here is part of a piece whose totality would have been strange if it were available. Il sogno di Partenope happens to be quite well sung by the seven soloists (three sopranos, mezzo-soprano, two tenors and bass) and nicely handled by chorus members and instrumental musicians alike. A quartet with chorus and the final chorus of jubilation are musically fairly interesting; the remaining sections, all with their accompanied recitatives, are straightforward within the allegorical context. There is good music here, if scarcely great music, and the whole curiosity that is Il sogno di Partenope shines a light on a long-neglected musical form. But it is one whose neglect is rather understandable: there is little on this CD that bears repeated hearings.

     Two new Obsculta Music CDs featuring the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria feature not allegory but straightforward and entirely orthodox religious material, much of it traditional and anonymous and all of it sung with great purity of tone and a strong sense of the singers’ involvement not only in the music but also in the sentiments and beliefs underlying it. Both discs are expressions of supreme and sublime faith, and both draw forth great beauty of sound from the Cistercian Monks – all to proclaim and highlight the Latin texts. Missa Latina is the more interesting of the two CDs: its primary offering is Ordo Missæ in Lingua Latina (Missa de Sacratissimo Corde Jesu), but it also contains the simple, straightforward and very moving Missa sine Nomine by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), sung by Ensemble Vox Gotica, plus – performed by the same group – the Dufay hymns Veni Creator Spiritus, Pange lingua and Ave, maria stella. Dufay, although writing in the same style as that of others of his time, found ways to exalt and entrance listeners while celebrating deeply held religious beliefs, and his music retains considerable power even after an astonishing 600 years. Into the Light has a more interesting arrangement of its music, although no settings here match Dufay’s. The disc is set up in six sections: Missa Beatæ Mariæ Virginis, Magnificat, Amor, Passio, Silentium, and Iubilatio, the last two of these being particularly heartfelt in sound and interestingly unfamiliar in content.  These are CDs for listeners deeply committed to a faith shared with the singers, or one of considerable similarity: the discs are more forms of heightened worship than they are performances, and one must share in their sincerity in order to get their full effect.

     At the opposite musical extreme, in many and various ways, is a CD released by Fine Mighty Records and called Jake Schepps Quintet: Entwined. It is not just that this disc is wholly secular, nor that it is as up-to-date as the Cistercian Monks’ recordings offer sound that is old and honored. The entire spirit of the music and performances here is as wild and extroverted as that of the Cistercian Monks is focused and inward-looking. The four pieces here are Flatiron by Marc Mellits, Drawn by Matt McBane, Migrations by Matt Flinner, and Stumble Smooth by Gyan Riley – all jazzlike titles that do indeed reflect one of the myriad of influences upon this combinatorial music. The performers are Jake Schepps on banjo, Flinner on mandolin, Enion Pelta-Tiller on violin, Ross Martin on guitar, and Eric Thorin on bass – plus Ryan Drickey on violin in Drawn and Grant Gordy on guitar in Flatiron. The music uses the many capabilities of a bluegrass ensemble to explore works whose provenance ranges from classical to jazz to pop to machine and electronic sounds and techniques. Flatiron is in eight movements that explore a wide range of emotions and a considerable number of rhythms, contrasting hectic sections with almost-lyrical ones. Drawn, a five-movement work, is an odd mixture of bluegrass instruments with modernistic compositional techniques. Migrations becomes modernistic, too, but it builds to that category by starting with an old-time bluegrass approach and working its way through a development connected loosely with traditional classical music. And Stumble Smooth, which functions as something of an encore, mixes multiple musical types in a piece designed to show off the instrumentalists’ capabilities. Only listeners enamored both of the bluegrass sound and of experimentation in the name of combining multiple musical forms will likely appreciate this CD fully. The prominence of banjo and mandolin can become rather grating over time, and the composers’ various attempts to combine musical approaches are scarcely seamless. Heard as an experimental disc that unites a particular performance sound with forms of music for which that sound is not traditionally thought to be suited, the CD is interesting, even intriguing, at least from time to time. But the individual works are not particularly distinguished, and none of the composers seems to have anything especially novel to say: all have written a form of display piece that explores performers’ abilities but has little communicative impact beyond an occasional “oh wow” moment resulting from a neat turn of phrase or unusually virtuosic bit of instrumental ostentation.

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