August 06, 2015


Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Volume 4—Works by Nicholas Ludford, Robert Jones and Robert Hunt. Blue Heron Choir conducted by Scott Metcalfe. Blue Heron. $19.99.

Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été; Chausson: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Henri Duparc: Three Songs. Soile Isokoski, soprano; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.

Ténor tenore! French and Italian Opera Arias. Yinjia Gong, tenor; Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Markus Lehtinen. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Daniel DeVasto: Winter Seven; John G. Bilotta: The Song of the Hermit Thrush; Paula Diehl: Anyone; Wedding Day. Navona. $16.99.

December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers. Lisa Delan, soprano; Lester Lynch, baritone; Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dawn Harms. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     There is something exhilarating in hearing vocal music for the first time, whether that music be new or old – and that is in addition to the pleasures of hearing familiar vocal works presented by new performers. Among the roster of old but never-before-heard pieces, those in the Peterhouse Partbooks from the early 16th century are especially fascinating for scholarly reasons, and highly worthy for musical ones as well. The books include works by a few composers who remain well-known today, such as Thomas Tallis; by others who were famed in their day but are little-known now, such as Nicholas Ludford; and by quite a few who are almost totally obscure. The excellent Blue Heron Choir is engaged in creating a five-CD set of Peterhouse Partbooks releases on its own label. This is no small project, in light of the fact that the tenor partbook is lost, as are some pages of the treble partbook. This has long prevented performance or even serious study of this music, which is a real shame – because the works shed fascinating light on pre-Reformation English polyphony and are simply wonderful to hear strictly on their own merits. The versions the Blue Heron Choir performs are reconstructions by Nick Sandon of the University of Essex, England, and while they cannot fully reproduce the originals, they are highly idiomatic and simply make the music sound wonderful – and very much of its time. The fourth Blue Heron Choir release includes Ave cujus conceptio by Ludford (c. 1490-1557); a moving and beautifully proportioned four-section Missa Spes nostra by Robert Jones (flourished 1520-35); an extended and lovely Stabat mater by Robert Hunt (early 16th century); and a brief Sarum plainchant, Kyrie Deus creator omnium. The choir’s sound is balanced and elegant, Scott Metcalfe’s leadership is impeccable, and the recording provides rare insight into music of its time and a most welcome chance to hear some very fine works that have lain unperformed for century upon century.

     The music is much better known on a new Ondine recording featuring works by Berlioz, Chausson and Henri Duparc, but soprano Soile Isokoski is not – at least not outside Finland, where she has long been a noted singer of opera and lieder. Isokoski (born 1957) has a strong, warm, involving voice and is skilled at phrasing, all characteristics that contribute to a very fine reading of Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été, with excellent support coming from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds. The sea-related elements of Berlioz’ cycle appear in different guise in Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, and here too Isokoski brings considerable warmth and understanding to the very different Maurice Bouchor poems that open and close the work. The central orchestral interlude is handled skillfully by the orchestra, and Storgårds does a fine job of making this bridge between two disparate poems into a connecting element rather than one that serves only to separate La Fleur des eaux from La Mort de l'amour. Chausson’s work was dedicated to Henri Duparc (1848-1933), whose own music – he stopped composing in 1885 and only about 40 of his pieces survive – is not performed frequently anymore. To the extent that Duparc’s works are still heard, it is his 17 art songs that remain known. The three Duparc songs included here are effective, interesting both in themselves and in the context of the Berlioz and Chausson pieces with which they are offered. They are Le Manoir de Rosemonde, L’Invitation au Voyage, and Chanson Triste, and their sea-related and wistful, even sad themes nicely complement the mood of the Berlioz and Chausson works. As a whole, this recital of better-known and less-known French Romantic vocal music is touching, warm and sung and played with considerable involvement.

     A new BIS recording featuring tenor Yinjia Gong presents works that are even better-known, but it is not as enjoyable a listening experience and gets a (+++) rating. The problem is not Gong (born 1983): he has a solid if rather unremarkable tenor voice, a strong grounding in the music he performs (he studied at the Malmo Academy of Music and the University College of Opera in Stockholm), and fine support from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Markus Lehtinen. The problem is that this SACD is just another of the interminable series of discs of tenors singing typical tenor arias. It would be unfair to remind listeners of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado, with its line about “the amateur tenor whose vocal villainies all desire to shirk,” since Gong is not an amateur and does possess a voice that, as it develops, has considerable potential. But listeners may wish to “shirk” the specific repertoire heard here, since so little of it is even the slightest bit off the beaten track. From Puccini are offered E lucevan le stelle, Recondita armonia, Che gelida manina and, of course, Nessun dorma. From Donizetti come Ah! mes amis and Una furtiva lagrima. Verdi contributes La donna è mobile, Forse la soglia attinse and, inevitably, Celeste Aïda. From Adolphe Adam comes Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire – what else? Then there are Salut! demeure chaste et pure and Ah! lève-toi, soleil by Gounod; La fleur que tu m’avais jetée by Bizet; and, from Massenet, Pourquoi me réveiller and Ah! fuyez, douce image. There is not a single piece here that a budding tenor fails to study and re-study, sing and re-sing, and there is not a single one that opera aficionados will have failed to hear dozens, if not hundreds, of times. The appeal of this recording lies strictly in the chance to hear a new tenor who may become more prominent over time. The music itself, as wonderful as it is – and it is wonderful, which is why everybody sings it – is really not a reason to own the recording.

     Figuring out why to own the new Navona CD of works by David DeVasto, John G. Bilotta and Paula Diehl is also a bit difficult. These four modern vocal works have little in common and little real reason to share a disc. The most interesting is DeVasto’s Winter Seven for baritone (Scott Uddenberg), choir and chamber ensemble (flute, viola and piano), conducted by the composer. Its seven movements deal with both physical and metaphysical winter, portraying both the cold of the season and the cold aspects of human life. That means the work is written with very broad strokes – ending with an inevitable sign of coming spring called The Crocus, but including within itself the Black Death, American Civil War and other forms of destruction and bleakness before it moves into positive territory. The juxtaposition of the natural world with that of humanity has been done many times before, but that does not reduce the effectiveness of DeVasto’s use of the approach, through which he conveys sentiments both dark and accepting, if not always positive. Bilotta’s The Song of the Hermit Thrush for soprano (Sarita Cannon) and chamber group (the Divisa Ensemble: flute, oboe, violin, viola and cello) uses lines from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d to acknowledge and even celebrate “cool-enfolding Death” – a wintry theme, to be sure, and one assembled with some care here, but not in an especially involving or convincing way. Bilotta’s work is, however, more emotive than the two songs by Diehl for baritone (Bradford Gleim) and piano (Chiharu Naruse). Diehl is one of those composers with a “system” that is surely of interest to her and may be so to other composers, but that leaves the audience in the lurch from a communicative standpoint. Diehl’s approach is based on the interval of the fourth: she overlaps fourths, then gradually separates them until they are completely apart. If this sounds dry and academic, that is because it is: the music here unfolds as an exercise in technique rather than one having any particular interest in reaching out to an audience. This CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating and will primarily attract listeners who simply want a chance to hear new vocal works by contemporary composers.

     Such listeners are better served by a (++++) PentaTone SACD featuring carols by Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie, David Garner, Luna Pearl Woolf, John Corigliano, Gordon Getty, and Joan Morris and William Bolcom. (That is eight composers, although the disc’s title specifies seven, apparently numbering the joint Morris/Bolcom work as if written by one person.) The winter portrayals here are more straightforward than those in DeVasto’s work, and the form these composers follow is a very old one – which, by and large, they absorb and use in a straightforward manner, not deeming Christmastime music an appropriate place for exercising their personal compositional predilections. What is interesting is how details of the composers’ styles nevertheless peep through in these seasonal works. Heggie’s On the Road to Christmas is an expansive six-movement tour, while Garner’s Three Carols and Getty’s Four Christmas Carols are simple, straightforward expressions of seasonal motifs. Adamo’s The Christmas Life and Corigliano’s Christmas at the Cloisters have a certain sense of modernity about them, even within the carol format. But the Morris/Bolcom Carol (Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide) is almost determinedly old-fashioned. Woolf’s extended How Bright the Darkness expands the carol form into something approaching that of an art song, and is considerably longer than any other carol here (more than seven minutes). It makes an intriguing contrast with the final work on the SACD, Getty’s sensitive arrangement of the always marvelous Silent Night by Franz Gruber (1787-1863) – a fitting conclusion to a very well-sung, fine-sounding recording that asserts eternal (or at least long-lasting) verities by presenting entirely new works in a form that has been around since at least the 12th century, if not longer.

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