October 01, 2015
(++++) DEATH ACCEPTED AND DEFIED
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Gerald Finley, bass; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).
Arthur Gottschalk: Requiem for the Living. Lauren Snouffer soprano; Andrea Jaber, alto; Daniel Mutlu, tenor; Timothy Jones, bass; St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $16.99.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 10; Sir Andrzej Panufnik: Symphony No. 10. Markus Butter, baritone; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. LSO. $14.99 (SACD).
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Lenoriana; Laurie Altman: Two Songs from Mountain Interval; Daron Aric Hagen: Larkin Songs; Martin Hennessy: Three Dickinson Songs. Elem Eley, baritone; J.J. Penna, piano. Affetto. $15.99.
A certain level of lugubriousness is inevitable in music focused on death, and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem sometimes comes across as even more downcast than analogous works by, say, Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. But when performed with the sensitivity and emotional involvement it receives from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, this requiem leaves a primary impression of, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. The new release on the orchestra’s own label is a live recording made from two September 2012 performances dedicated to Kurt Sanderling, one of the ensemble’s best-regarded guest conductors, who had died the year before. Jansons was still chief conductor of the Concertgebouw at this time, and the entire recording shows him in firm command of the orchestra as well as the soloists and chorus. Indeed, the singers have a great deal to do with making this such a moving reading. Genia Kühmeier has an unusually pure, well-focused soprano voice, and her emotion-charged performance sweeps the audience into Brahms’ sentiments without ever overdoing them or making them seem maudlin. Gerald Finley’s voice is a sturdy one, and his singing is here distinguished by the clarity of his diction and the ease of his delivery. The Netherlands Radio Choir is beautifully modulated, sensitive and involved in the music’s sentiments, and the orchestra is simply outstanding, showing yet again why it is one of the world’s greatest. It is rare to hear a choir and orchestra as intimately bound together as they are here, and rarer still to hear a performance that starts at such a high level of quality and stays there consistently for the work’s full span. An absolutely first-rate reading of a sometimes problematic work, offered in top-quality SACD sound, Jansons’ Ein Deutsches Requiem fully plumbs the depths of the emotions that Brahms sought to invoke and evoke through his setting of the mass for the dead.
Although scarcely at so high a level, several other new recordings that also involve music about death – in one way or another – have many intriguing elements of their own. Requiem for the Living by Arthur Gottschalk (born 1952) certainly does not lack for ambition. Like Brahms’ work, Gottschalk’s is as much about life as about death; and both works refuse to be bound by the traditional text of the Requiem Mass. There, though, the resemblances end. In eight movements for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, Gottschalk combines the traditional Latin words of the Requiem with ones ranging from those of Buddha to those of Mohammed, from George Eliot to Duke Ellington. He does so in a very complex mixture of musical styles, not only including multiple classical-music genres – some from past centuries (e.g., Renaissance madrigals), some from today – but also tossing in jazz, pop, blues and other nonclassical forms. To some extent, this is unsurprising: many contemporary composers throw Western and Eastern music and thought together willy-nilly, to greater or lesser effect. But context matters – and in the case of Requiem for the Living, it matters a great deal. What Gottschalk does here is take a strictly religious concept and try to move it into a kind of secular humanism that does not, however, deny or downplay its spiritual roots. He also tries to honor the philosophical thinking and music of multiple places and eras, and to do all of this within a coherent framework that even in its Western portions stretches back to a time before Christianity produced the notion of a Requiem Mass: the first and last sections of Gottschalk’s work juxtapose the Kyrie with the Jewish memorial Yizkor. Certainly one of the more ambitious choral works of recent years, both musically and philosophically, Requiem for the Living ultimately tries to do too much, juggling so many elements and approaches that it becomes difficult for listeners to know how to listen to the work and to feel in what direction their emotions are being pulled (indeed, they are usually stretched in several directions at once). Vladimir Lande, a conductor who has shown considerable affinity for complex contemporary music, leads the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra gamely and with a good sense of vocal/orchestral balance, and the four soloists all handle their parts admirably, although none has a really distinctive voice. This Navona release gets a (+++) rating, but listeners who hear the recording and find themselves intrigued rather than exhausted by everything that happens in Gottschalk’s work will likely give it even higher regard, especially after multiple hearings – if they can manage them.
If Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living is ultimately a celebration of life, so, in a different way, is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony, whose first performance (February 2014) is now available in a live recording on the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label. Davies was hospitalized when he wrote much of this work, being treated for leukemia, a cancer whose five-year survival rate remains stubbornly low despite many recent advances in treatment. And the work itself deals with the life and death of Italian architect Francesco Borromini (1559-1667), a noted but notably difficult architect, largely self-taught, whose life also inspired the seventh of Davies’ Naxos Quartets. The four-part Tenth Symphony incorporates several vocal elements: a 17th-century sonnet to Borromini, some words by the architect himself, and some of the highly lyrical poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1831). There is a certain darkness throughout Davies’ symphony, emphasized by the extensive use of low woodwind and brass; and the large percussion section (which requires six players) brings a variety of exotic sounds to the music thanks to the inclusion of multiple metallic instruments, including crotales and a temple bowl. Although the work is harmonically comparatively approachable, it tries, as does Gottschalk’s, to cram a great deal into itself, and a knowledge of and empathy for the rather prickly personality of Borromini is almost a necessity (and certainly a big help) in navigating the symphony’s ups and downs. In this respect, Davies’ Tenth somewhat resembles Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, which requires familiarity with Byron’s poem to be fully comprehensible; but while Tchaikovsky’s music sweeps even unknowing listeners along through its sheer thematic beauty and its drama, Davies’ craggier work is more difficult to become fully involved in for those who know little about its rather abstruse subject matter. This is so despite the very fine singing the symphony receives from soloists and chorus, and the strongly committed playing that Sir Antonio Pappano elicits from the orchestra. Davies’ symphony is paired on this recording with a much briefer Tenth, that of Andrzej Panufnik. Dating to 1988 and written for the centenary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it, Panufnik’s symphony is not the virtuoso showpiece that its provenance might lead one to expect. Instead it is something of a sonic exploration, in which Panufnik melds various sections in different ways, as if to show the versatility not only of the whole orchestra but also of each part of it. Panufnik’s compositional approach, which includes three-note cells and an attempt to depict geometric forms in music, is ever-present here as well, creating a kind of academic superstructure for the symphony – and, unfortunately, distancing it somewhat from the audience. This well-recorded SACD is a (+++) release that will principally be of interest to listeners already familiar with the music of Davies and Panufnik, especially those who are fans of Davies’ large-scale works.
An intriguing CD featuring songs by four contemporary composers who are significantly less-known than Davies and Panufnik also has a peripheral connection to the topic of death – and in some cases an explicit one. The works of Edgar Allan Poe are never far from being death-obsessed, and the nine songs in Lenoriana by Benjamin C.S. Boyle (born 1979) – two of them entitled Lenore – focus as much on the dead as on Poe’s complex philosophical thinking. Annabel Lee and The Conqueror Worm are poems whose aural resonance is as telling today as when they were written nearly two centuries ago, and Boyle sets them with feeling, if without any exceptional distinction in his approach to the material. In addition to those and the Lenore movements, the other pieces here are To (one of two that Poe wrote with the same two-letter title), Intermezzo, El Dorado, A Dream within a Dream, and To Helen (again, one of the two of that title). The Poe cycle, its rhythms attractive but its subject matter ranging from the dour to the abstruse, contrasts well with Two Songs from Mountain Interval by Laurie Altman (born 1944) – because Altman’s settings are of poems by Robert Frost, whose distinct sensibilities are quite different from Poe’s (although the final words of The Sound of Trees, “I shall be gone,” are enigmatic enough). Baritone Elem Eley and pianist J.J. Penna do a fine job together in bringing out the intricacies of the settings of the Poe and Frost poems – Eley seems to have a strong affinity for the cadences of both poets. The performances are also fine in the other works on this CD on the Affetto label. Daron Eric Hagen (born 1961) brings some of the dramatic sense that he includes in his opera libretti to settings of poems by Philip Larkin, and he arranges those poems interestingly, into a kind of suite for voice and piano that designates two of the settings as interludes and presents the eight others as four pairs. Larkin’s poetry lends itself well to this arrangement of connectedness – while, in contrast, the Three Dickinson Songs set by Martin Hennessy stand better on their own as individual pieces. Hennessy has his own involvement with Poe – he wrote a musical called Edgar, based on The Tell-Tale Heart – and he is sensitive to the nuances of Dickinson’s poetry as well, with all three brief poems set here receiving careful arrangements that go well with the words. Indeed, one of these poems has distinctly Poe-esque overtones: Let down the bars, O Death! Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) release whose well-crafted settings are generally workmanlike rather than inspired. There is little in these contemporary art songs that will likely disappoint listeners already familiar with the poems, but also little that will deepen their understanding of the poetry or significantly enhance their enjoyment of it.