September 10, 2015
(+++) VOICES AND MORE
Sibelius: Jedermann; Two Serious Melodies; In memoriam. Pia Pajala, soprano; Tuomas Katajala, tenor; Nicholas Söderlund, bass; Cathedralis Aboensis Choir; Mikaela Palmu, violin; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.
Gordon Getty: A Prayer for My Daughter; Poor Peter; The Little Match Girl; Joan and the Bells. Nikolai Schukoff, tenor; Melody Moore, soprano; Lester Lynch, baritone; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Asher Fisch and Ulf Schirmer. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruno Mantovani: Cinques poèmes de János Pilinszky; Vier geistliche Gedichte; Monde évanoui (Fragments pour Babylone); Cantata No. 4, “Komm, Jesu, Komm.” Accentus Chamber Choir conducted by Laurence Equilbey and Pieter-Jelle de Boer; Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello; Pascal Contet, accordion. Naïve. $16.99.
Christopher Rouse: Seeing; Kabir Padavali. Talise Trevigne, soprano; Orion Weiss, piano; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
David Ashley White: The Blue Estuaries; Jocelyn Hagen: soft blink of amber light; Christopher Theofanidis: Messages to Myself; Wayne Oquin: O Magnum Mysterium; Dominick DiOrio: A Dome of Many-coloured Glass. Houston Chamber Choir conducted by Robert Simpson. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Sometimes music can be too atmospheric. That is the case with Sibelius’ Jedermann, incidental music to a 1916 production of a revision of a medieval morality play. Sibelius designed the music to parallel the speaking parts precisely, enhancing and being enhanced by them, much as was done decades later in film music (and continues to be done in that medium today). The problem is that Jedermann is a very slow-moving slog of a play, true in its 20th-century incarnation to its very old roots and, as a result, allowing for only a very small amount of brightness in the music. Songs and dancelike tunes are acceptable early in the play, as Everyman indulges in earthly delights, but the point of the play – as of other morality plays – is that earthly enjoyment brings one to the attention of the Devil, and must be given up and repented for in order to achieve salvation. So the choral singing (which is quite fine) and the brief solos from soprano, tenor and bass are soon dispensed with, and the play drags the music along through multiple sections marked Largo, Adagio di molto, Largo e mesto, even Con grande dolore. The unremitting lugubriousness of the music – which makes it unsurprising that Sibelius never created a suite from Jedermann, as he did from his other theater music – fits the story well; but heard independently of the words it was designed to complement and enhance, it is unconvincing. And the overall bleakness of the CD is unrelieved by the material accompanying Jedermann: instead of choosing something contrasting and upbeat for this latest of his forays into Sibelius’ theater and less-known music, Leif Segerstam adds to the play’s music the composer’s Two Serious Melodies (1914-15), depressive violin-and-orchestra pieces reflecting their wartime creation, and In memoriam (1910), a distinctly funereal (and rather Mahlerian) offering that was eventually played at Sibelius’ own funeral in 1957. As in other releases in this generally very interesting Naxos sequence, the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra plays very well, and Segerstam leads it with a sure hand and considerable understanding of the material. But the nearly unrelieved darkness of this release makes it difficult to recommend it to anyone other than committed Sibelius fans who are eager to hear as much of his music as possible.
An unrestrained recommendation is also difficult to give to the new PentaTone SACD of music by Gordon Getty (born 1934). Getty is a fine composer with sound theatrical instincts and more than a little skill in vocal writing. But his works are not of uniform quality and interest, as is clear from the four offered here. Two use his own texts: Poor Peter and Joan and the Bells, each of which contains three movements. The former is rather self-consciously art-songy, the texts delivered against a fairly light orchestration in a kind of singsong Sprechstimme that is not particularly well-suited to the material. The latter, a cantata about Joan of Arc that is darker, more operatic and scored for a larger ensemble, is much more effective despite being somewhat overly melodramatic. The contrast between the opening movement, Judgment, and the second, Joan in Her Chamber, is particularly pronounced; the final movement, The Square at Rouen, is the most predictable despite being the climax of the work – yet its effectiveness as drama cannot be doubted. This work as a whole is almost a miniature oratorio – and that is also the impression of The Little Match Girl, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s bittersweet (more bitter than sweet) story, in which the positive elements are delivered through unswerving belief in highly traditional Christianity (a frequent theme in Andersen’s tales). Here Getty does not seem quite sure whether the material is tragic or in some sense uplifting; as a result, the work has less emotional punch and less of a central core of feeling than does his setting about Joan of Arc. As for A Prayer for My Daughter, this uses a complex and controversial poem by William Butler Yeats as its basis: the poem deals with Irish nationalism (it was written during the Anglo-Irish War, in 1919), sexuality, expectations of womanhood in the early 20th century, and more. It calls for a setting of considerable complexity – or, alternatively, one in which the composer chooses among the various interpretations of the poem and uses music to advance the thesis of that particular meaning. Getty’s setting is fine, but it is rather on the pale side, tending to accept Yeats’ words literally rather than to interpret them – and not finding any way to reflect on the war scenario that, along with the birth of Yeats’ daughter, brought the poem into being. As a result, Getty’s work carries rather less meaning than the poem it sets and illustrates; but its sensitive orchestration and attentiveness to the words themselves make it an interesting and, on the whole, effective piece. The performers here are all quite fine, with the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks outstanding and Ulf Schirmer – who leads Joan and the Bells – delivering a more-nuanced and more-involving performance than does Asher Fisch, who conducts the other three works.
The vocal music of Bruno Mantovani (born 1974) is only part of his life – indeed, composition itself is only one part. Mantovani is also a conductor, radio music producer, and music educator and administrator. The Accentus Chamber Choir commissioned Cinques poèmes de János Pilinszky from Mantovani in 2004 and subsequently commissioned three additional works from him. All four are now available on a Naïve release that will be of interest as much to fans of the performing ensemble as to those interested in Mantovani’s music. In fact, the music itself is nothing special within its contemporary context. It periodically looks back as far as Bach, Gesualdo and Rameau, occasionally echoes the Romantic leanings of Schubert and Schumann, and frequently dips into jazz, Oriental music and other cross-cultural and cross-musical currents that today’s composers visit with considerable regularity. Mantovani writes well for voices, but only in a modern-music context. Cinques poèmes de János Pilinszky, for example, includes the usual asymmetry of construction, imprecise or absent consonance, fluid or nonexistent key structure, and an overall inspiration that Mantovani himself says he drew from electroacoustical sounds. The result is not particularly poetic and not especially unified: the five poems sound different from one another, and the work as a whole is fragmented rather than joined in any significant way relating either to its content or to its musical building blocks. The sung language is different and the source is poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, but the impact is much the same in Vier geistliche Gedichte and, indeed, in all four works here. It is a point of pride with Accentus and Laurence Equilbey to support, encourage, commission and perform as many new works as possible, and certainly Mantovani’s pieces are well-crafted and well-suited to the Accentus Chamber Choir’s vocal capabilities. None of them, however, stands out either stylistically or communicatively from the large amount of vocal music created by other contemporary composers.
On the other hand, Kabir Padavali (1998) by Christopher Rouse (born 1949) does have some distinctiveness about it, consisting as it does of six settings of works by Kabir, a 15th-century mystic poet and saint of India. Settings of works written in Hindi are unusual in modern Western music, and Rouse does a good job of exploring the wider-than-might-be-expected range of Kabir’s interests. These unsurprisingly include religious issues and even religious ecstasy, but more unusually convey hints of humor and even puckishness. Kabir Padavali (which translates as “Kabir Songbook”) is a bit much to hear – it lasts more than half an hour – but the fact that Naxos supplies transliterations and translations of the texts makes the music more accessible than it would otherwise be. And Rouse manages to integrate Western and Eastern elements in his composition in ways that are effective more often than not. Strong performances by soprano Talise Trevigne and the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller give this work as good a chance of coming across successfully as it is likely to have. And unlike the rather monochromatic Sibelius CD, this one pairs the vocal material with something quite different, although written in the same year. Seeing, for piano (the very fine Orion Weiss) and orchestra, is a kind of piano non-concerto, juxtaposing and contrasting elements of Schumann with ones from Moby Grape co-founder and guitarist Skip Spence (1946-1999). Very little connects the music of Schumann and Spence, but what does connect them is mental illness (exacerbated in Spence’s case by drug addiction and alcoholism), and Rouse uses this point of contact as the basis of the exploration he attempts in Seeing. This is an ambitious and unusual idea and not, in the final analysis, a particularly successful one: yes, the work shifts abruptly from consonance to dissonance, and yes, it is disorienting in a way that may perhaps reflect mental imbalance, but it makes its points several times in different ways and, at a length of more than half an hour, comes to seem rather self-indulgent. However, it has numerous interesting moments within its time span, and its concept is intriguing even if the execution is imperfect. Rouse has some unusual ideas about how to structure his works, and unlike many contemporary composers, seems genuinely concerned about connecting with listeners on an emotional level – something he does inconsistently, but an attempt for which he deserves praise.
There is a certain amount of reaching out from the five composers on a new MSR Classics vocal release, too. David Ashley White (born 1944), Jocelyn Hagen (born 1980), Christopher Theofanidis (born 1967), Wayne Oquin (born 1977), and Dominick DiOrio (born 1984) are from different generations, but all are intrigued by the communicative power of the chamber choir – and the Houston Chamber Choir under Robert Simpson is a very fine one. Theofanidis’ Messages to Myself (2007) is especially effective in this regard, since in searching for poetry that he himself finds meaningful, the composer comes up with some that reaches out to the audience as well. Yeats, who appealed to Getty, appeals to Theofanidis as well, the work here (the fourth and final one of these “messages”) being an excerpt from When You Are Old. The first three “messages” are from Walt Whitman (from Leaves of Grass), the medieval Persian mystic Jellaludin Rūmi, and (least effectively in terms of involving a wider audience) a personal friend of Theofanidis named Amy Kirsten. There are two other multi-movement pieces here: White’s The Blue Estuaries (1998), using five poems by Louise Bogan, and DiOrio’s A Dome of Many-coloured Glass (2010), which draws on four poems by Amy Lowell. Interspersed with the multi-sectional pieces are two single-movement ones. Hagen’s soft blink of amber light (2014), with the whole title unnecessarily in small letters, includes poetry by Julia Klatt Singer and complements the choir with flute, clarinet, piano, and marimba, lending the work a more varied sound palette than the a cappella pieces on this disc possess. Oquin’s O Magnum Mysterium (2013), the shortest piece on the CD, is in some ways the most deeply communicative of all, using contemporary techniques – but not in any overdone way – to set the classic sacred text for mixed choir, thus producing a joining of today’s musicianship with that of centuries past. All the performances here are first-rate, and although the music will have different meanings, and different levels of meaning, for different listeners, all of it is distinguished by the composers’ clear interest in sharing their emotional responses to texts with a receptive audience – a form of sharing that unfortunately is not always evident in vocal (or, for that matter, instrumental) works by contemporary composers.