November 05, 2015


Schumann: Das Paradies und die Peri. Sally Matthews and Kate Royal, sopranos; Bernarda Fink, contralto; Mark Padmore and Andrews Staples, tenors; Florian Boesch, bass; London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. LSO Live. $25.99 (2 SACDs+Blu-ray Disc).

Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortilèges; Ma Mère l’Oye. Hélène Hébrard, Ingrid Perruche and Annick Massis, sopranos; Julie Pasturaud, mezzo-soprano; Delphine Galou, contralto; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, tenor; Marc Barrard, baritone; Nicolas Courjal, bass; Chœur Britten, Jeune Chœur symphonique, Maîtrise de l’Opéra National de Lyon and Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Bruno Maderna: Requiem. Diana Tomiche, soprano; Kathrin Göring, contralto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; Renatus Mészár, bass; MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie conducted by Frank Beermann. Capriccio. $16.99.

Penderecki: A sea of dreams did breathe on me… Olga Pasichnyk, soprano; Ewa Marciniec, mezzo-soprano; Jarosław Bręk, baritone; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $12.99.

An English Christmas. Westminster Concert Bell Choir conducted by Kathleen Ebling Shaw. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

     A distinctive and unusual work whose form is difficult to identify – Schumann called it a “secular oratorio,” which seems about right – Das Paradies und die Peri is a fascinating, musically very well-written piece that sustains well throughout its hour-and-a-half length despite the rather overly sentimental libretto. It deserves to be considered a real find: the high quality of the music and the very attractive vocal as well as instrumental writing combine to make it a piece that certainly does not deserve the obscurity into which it fell after Schumann’s death (it was quite popular in his lifetime). It gets a handsome presentation, too, on the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Live label: there are two very high-quality SACDs, an audio Blu-ray Disc, and an explanatory booklet that contains the complete libretto in German and English – altogether, a most welcome introduction to a work that very few listeners will ever have heard. The story revolves around the attempt of a Peri, portrayed as a sort of female angel, to gain readmission to Heaven after being thrown out for some unnamed sin. To be accepted again, she must journey about the Earth until she can find and bring back an example of that which is dearest to God. It takes her three attempts; she eventually succeeds by bringing back the tears of a repentant sinner. This is sentimental, for sure, and in line with conventional 19th-century morality. But the point here is Schumann’s music more than the libretto, which is a modified, German-language version of a once-popular verse epic by Irish poet Thomas Moore. Schumann manages to find a way to write convincing solo vocal lines devoid of bel canto ornamentation, and choruses that do not sound Handelian. Those are the things that Das Paradies und die Peri is not; what it is, is basically a musically convincing extended song cycle, a series of solo and multi-person deliveries of texts that come through very clearly thanks to music that supports the words rather than obscuring them through vocal effects. The storytelling is plainly audible, and at the same time the supportive music enhances the tale and carries listeners along on a quest in which neither love of country (which produces the Peri’s first attempted gift to heaven) nor love-unto-death of man and woman (the second attempt) pleases Heaven enough to allow the Peri to regain a place on high. The story has elements of fairy tale rather than being a strictly religious narrative, and Schumann manages to balance these differing aspects of the libretto to fine effect, resulting in a work that seems to grow organically from start to finish and eventually ends in surpassing lyricism. Sir Simon Rattle leads the soloists, choruses and orchestra with absolute assurance and style here, showing Das Paradies und die Peri to be a work of grace and beauty, an unusual piece in Schumann’s oeuvre and one whose acquaintance it is well worth making.

     Fairy tales of a different type, ones specifically reproducing some of the thoughts and feelings of children, are the heart of Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges and his ballet Ma Mère l’Oye, both of which receive first-rate performances directed by Leonard Slatkin on a new Naxos CD. L’Enfant et les sortilèges is a particular pleasure: fast-paced, witty and with some genuinely striking instrumental effects, the score very neatly encapsulates a child’s world while teaching just the sort of mundane behavioral lesson that parents would hope misbehaving young children will learn without requiring the intervention of magical forces. As the petulant and destructive young Child, Hélène Hébrard is suitably tantrum-prone, then wonderstruck as objects in the room come alive, and then frightened when the creatures outdoors seem to become threatening – only to be won over by the Child’s act of kindness and repeated call for “Maman,” which the animals join the Child in calling out. Ravel’s amusingly evocative settings of a “cat conversation” and the personification of Arithmetic are standouts here, but in fact all the one-act opera’s very short scenes, starting with the awakening of the Louis XV Chair, are handled adeptly and sung with just the right frisson of mystery. The entire cast – each member except for Hébrard singing multiple roles – takes to the music winningly, and both the adult and children’s choruses complement the individual singers to fine effect. Slatkin’s direction is just right: the opera unfolds seemingly naturally, for all its fantastic elements, and the increasing menace toward the end dissipates quickly, just as it should, as the Child proves to have a good heart after all. L’Enfant et les sortilèges is nicely complemented by an equally facile performance of the complete ballet Ma Mère l’Oye (which is, in truth, not much longer than the more-often-heard suite drawn from the ballet music). The music here, in the absence of stage action, does not paint portraits of the Mother Goose tales particularly well, but it is all pleasant, generally impressionistic rather than specific in its portrayal of various scenes, and presented in this performance with a combination of gentleness and attentiveness to the finely honed orchestration at which Ravel was so adept. The performances were recorded a couple of years apart – Ma Mère l’Oye in 2011 and L’Enfant et les sortilèges in 2013 – but both sound equally good, and both show Slatkin’s clear understanding of and commitment to Ravel’s music.

     The vocal material is considerably more serious in the Requiem by Bruno Maderna (1920-1973), a work from 1946 that was long thought to be lost and was rediscovered only in 2006 and first performed in 2009. Maderna, a solid and underrated conductor, was also a composer of some substance, although his work will scarcely appeal to all listeners: much of it is determinedly serial and seems more concerned with adhering to the dictates of its style than with communicating effectively with an audience. However, Maderna did not begin writing serial pieces until 1948. His Requiem, which follows the Latin texts and the movement sequence of similar works by earlier composers, certainly sounds like a creation of someone familiar with 20th-century techniques and harmonies, but at the same time ties clearly back to the expressiveness of the Requiems of Verdi and Berlioz. It partakes of some of their intensity as well: the Dies irae movement, which runs an astonishing 23-and-a-half minutes (it is two-and-a-half times as extended as the second-longest movement, the nine-and-a-half-minute concluding Libera me), is clearly reflective of the wartime experiences that led Maderna to create his Requiem. After serving in Mussolini’s army for a time, Maderna joined the Partisan Resistance and was captured by German forces, then interrogated at Dachau by the SS – the situation that led him to create the Requiem. The work makes considerable demands on its four soloists, but the primary impression it leaves is one of a plea for peace, not so much in the sense of Britten’s War Requiem as in a more-personal sense of seeking comfort for oneself and for those who have already passed on. Musically derivative in some ways, it shows genuine originality in others, and is well-orchestrated and effectively written for both individual and choral voices. Frank Beermann leads the forces heard on a new Capriccio CD firmly and with a particularly good sense of balance between the vocal and instrumental elements of the score. Not a great work but still a very impressive one, Maderna’s Requiem may well serve to introduce new listeners to a talented and still under-appreciated 20th-century composer.

     Krzysztof Penderecki, on the other hand, is scarcely under-appreciated. His song cycle from 2010, A sea of dreams did breathe on me…, was composed for the final concert of the Polish bicentenary celebrations in Warsaw, but it is only in the third of its three parts that direct ties to Chopin really emerge. This work is in some ways closely related to Penderecki’s Symphony No. 8, “Songs of Transience,” but it links the composer more clearly to late-Romantic lied composers, especially the Russian school. The primary building blocks, though, come largely from 20th-century Polish poetry. “The enchanted garden,” the first part of A sea of dreams did breathe on me…, is a fairy-tale world, but one quite unlike Ravel’s: this is a more-reflective place, fantasy as seen through adult eyes. The second part – “What is the night saying?” – gets closer to and beyond Ravel’s child’s fears into a world that has nightmarish elements; it is from this part that the title of the whole work is taken. The third part, as long as the first two combined, is called “I visited you in these near-final days…” Six segments here are marked “Chopin’s piano,” while other elements of the section refer somewhat bleakly to a land far away, the autumn wind, and Countess Potocka’s grave. Yet the feelings here are more wistful than depressive; indeed, Penderecki calls this entire work “Songs of reflection and nostalgia.” Neither reflection nor nostalgia is much in evidence in contemporary classical music, and it is Penderecki’s willingness to work within these now-neglected but once-common categories that helps A sea of dreams did breathe on me… reach out widely to audiences, in ways that his other works – no matter how much they are admired by musicians and critics – are not always successful in doing. Although it lacks the narrative flow of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, Penderecki’s song cycle partakes of some of the same emotional flavor, and the first song, in which children’s souls are imagined to be flowering as the children walk across a field, has some of the sensibility of L’Enfant et les sortilèges – although Penderecki’s music here sounds more like that of Debussy than that of Ravel. The soloists are all very good on this Naxos recording, though soprano Olga Pasichnyk sounds somewhat strained in her highest register from time to time. Antoni Wit here reaffirms his sensitivity to Penderecki and to Polish music in general, shaping the work lovingly and leading both chorus and orchestra with sure understanding.

     Lighter music, with charms all its own, is a considerable seasonal treat on a new Westminster Choir College CD called An English Christmas and featuring the Westminster Concert Bell Choir. The ensemble not only sings beautifully but also performs on the largest range of handbells in the world, spanning a full eight octaves and supplemented by a six-octave set of easier-to-play (but still very sonically effective) handchimes. The blend of familiar and less-known carols works particularly well here, with God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Silent Night juxtaposed not only with Greensleeves but also with the traditional Welsh Slumber Song, the 12th-century Irish Wexford Carol, Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter, the well-known 16th-century Good King Wenceslas, and Ding, Dong, Merrily on High. The combination, on its face, might appear a trifle odd, especially when considering which music seems more or less appropriate for handbells; but the sequence on the disc is well-thought-out, and Kathleen Ebling Shaw leads every carol with care and fine balance, resulting in a CD filled with pleasure from start to finish. The rest of the 14 tracks here are On This Day Earth Shall Ring (14th century), Sussex Carol (17th), Coventry Carol (16th), Masters in This Hall (18th), Boar’s Head Carol (16th), and, as a finale, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – a more-than-fitting and thoroughly uplifting conclusion to a CD that effectively communicates the joys and underlying serious themes of Christmas both vocally and with instruments whose range and sensitivity prove significantly greater than anyone unfamiliar with highly skilled handbell playing will likely expect.

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