December 10, 2015


Bach: Mass in B Minor. Hannah Morrison, soprano; Esther Brazil, mezzo-soprano; Meg Bragle and Kate Symonds-Joy, altos; Peter Davoren and Nick Pritchard, tenors; Alex Ashworth and David Shipley, basses; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 5—“Birthday Cantatas,” BWV 213 and 214. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

He Is Born. BYU Vocal Point. BYU Records. $16.99.

Carols from King’s: 60th Anniversary Edition. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Choir of King’s College DVD. $18.99.

Simon Mayr: Requiem. Siri Karoline Thornhill and Katharina Ruckgaber, sopranos;  Theresa Holzhauser and Brigitte Thoma, altos; Markus Schäfer and Robert Sellier, tenors; Martin Berner, Ludwig Mittelhammer and Virgil Mischok, basses; Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     Thirty years after recording a splendid Bach Mass in B Minor with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner has recorded another – with the same groups, although the members of the groups have changed (there is actually a single choir holdover). The new recording, like the old one, is one of the very best readings of this music available, and in fact the SDG release does not so much supplant the earlier version as supplement it. Gardiner’s approach has become more refined, a touch more sure-handed, even a bit more elegant, but it is essentially the same as it was in 1985, when it was excellent. The soloists, who are members of the choir, handle themselves with grace and beauty, and the choral and orchestral forces are well-balanced, poised, well-versed in historic performance practices, and thoroughly at home with the music, to such an extent that everything here comes across as simply sounding right and as being performed, as the recording label’s full name indicates, Soli Deo Gloria (in this context, “only for the glory of God”). The sole element of the recording that may provoke some controversy is Gardiner’s refusal to perform the mass in one-to-a-part fashion, as many other historically aware conductors do. Gardiner does not believe the one-to-a-part notion has been proved, and he dislikes the thinness of its sound, amusingly referring to the result as “the B minor madrigal.” This is an argument more for scholars and high-end performers than for listeners, however: what matters is whether Gardiner’s approach works, and that it most assuredly does. Nothing here is heavy-handed in the slightest, and everything is convincingly sung and played – and very well recorded indeed. A high point among high points is the Credo, delivered with sure understanding, firm control and exceptional beauty. But in fact beauty, along with devotion, permeates this recording, which is so well done that even listeners who already own other versions of the Mass in B Minor – including those who own Gardiner’s previous recording – should consider adding this one to their collections.

     Bach’s secular music can be as splendid in its way as his devotional music is in its very different one. The fifth BIS volume of Bach cantatas from Bach Collegium Japan is a delightful case in point. It contains two cantatas written for birthdays: BWV 213, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (“Let us be careful, let us watch), written in 1733 for the 11th birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony; and BWV 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (“Sound, drums! Ring out, trumpets!), from the same year, written for the 34th birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony. BWV 213 is based on the story of “Hercules at the Crossroads,” having to choose between virtue and following his desires and deciding, of course, to take the proper path. Bach uses the final bass arioso as a direct address to the young crown prince, making the relevance of the classical myth abundantly clear. BWV 214 has, in accordance with its title, a chorus that opens with a timpani solo – an unusual approach for Bach, and quite an effective one. Both cantatas are very well sung by soloists and chorus alike, and the orchestra plays in fine style and with considerable clarity. Bach called each of these cantatas a “dramma per musica,” so their celebratory aspects are only part of what performers need to communicate. The dramatic ones also come through very nicely in these performances. And it is worth noting that the secular-sacred ties in Bach’s music are many, with these cantatas being no exceptions: Bach actually used parts of both of them, in revised form, in his Christmas Oratorio.

     Eleven examples of Christmas music from Brigham Young University – although nothing by Bach – can be heard in fine form on a new BYU Records release featuring singers collectively known as BYU Vocal Point. Their point in this recording is simply a seasonal celebration mixing mostly familiar music with a few less-known numbers, with everything arranged to highlight the singers’ fine vocal qualities. The musical mix is a trifle odd at times: Silent Night is immediately followed by an arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s ubiquitous Sleigh Ride, for example. And the CD will not fully please either people seeking the familiar or those looking for something seasonal but out of the ordinary: it includes God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; He Is Born; a combination called Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; One Single Bell; Nuttin’ for Christmas, followed immediately by Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, which is succeeded by Infant Holy, Infant Lowly; and, lastly, Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful. This is a very well-sung recording whose slightly odd musical mixture makes it a (+++) release for most listeners, although those who enjoy the very high-quality vocalizing for which Brigham Young singers are justifiably known will certainly enjoy it for its sheer sound as well as for its content.

     There is even more singing, and all of it is equally excellent in a very different way, on a new Choir of King’s College DVD memorializing the 60th anniversary of the first televised carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. The choristers here have a certain crispness to go with their warmth, and Stephen Cleobury’s conducting is absolutely spot-on in quality, pacing, vocal blending and overall sound. The release is strictly for people who want a lot of Christmas music from the same ensemble, and a lot of material on the ensemble itself – it is a (+++) release because of this limited appeal. But there is no question that those to whom it does appeal will get a great deal for their money. There are 20 carols here, plus an entire BBC documentary on the history of the King’s College carol service – well over two hours of music and talk in all. The choir shows its range and adeptness by including material from Bach (Von Himmel hoch, BWV 606), Gustav Holst (In the Bleak Mid-winter), Sir John Tavener (The Lamb and God Is with Us), Peter Warlock (Benedicamus Domino), and Herbert Howells (A Spotless Rose). The selections also include Once in Royal David’s City; Up! Good Christian Folk;  A Tender Shoot; Sussex Carol; Stille Nacht; It Came upon the Midnight Clear; Gabriel’s Message; Joys Seven; God Rest You [sic] Merry, Gentlemen; Ding! Dong! Merrily on High; Noël Nouvelet; The Three Kings; A Babe Is Born; and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. French, German, Basque, English – whatever tradition the carols come from, Cleobury and his singers present them with grace and sensitivity, and always with a lovely blending of voices resulting in a full, warm sound. Despite the decided Christmas focus, this is as much a DVD about the choir as it is about the season and the music. On that basis it transcends the season that it celebrates with such vocal skill.

     There is also some fine singing on a new Naxos release of music that transcends all seasons: the 1815 Grande Messa da Requiem by Simon Mayr. Like Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), Mayr (1763-1845) is a transitional musical figure, and as a result has been thought of as neither here nor there – not fully Classical in orientation despite being born while Mozart was alive, but not entirely Romantic in perspective either. This has resulted in general neglect of Mayr’s music (and Hummel’s), although the fact that Mayr taught Donizetti and was himself the composer of more than 60 operas has brought him occasional attention. His seven requiem masses, however, have been almost wholly neglected, and this performance, led with determination and flexibility by Franz Hauk, is a world première recording. This Requiem is a work on a grand scale, running very nearly two hours, and features some exceptionally fine vocal writing. In fact, small sections of the piece were composed by Donizetti – then corrected (today we might say “massaged”) by Mayr. The edition used for this recording is itself something special, having been assembled from the autograph manuscripts; the result is a work more elaborate and altogether larger in instrumentation and overall scale than the published version of the same music. What is most interesting here, however, is how exceptionally clearly this work shows the transitional nature of Mayr’s style. The Kyrie eleison/Christe eleison has all the makings of bel canto material, with lovely flow and the requisite vocal acrobatics (although not too many, this being, after all, a mass for the dead). On the other hand, the Agnus dei sounds so Mozartean that it will likely make listeners sit up in surprise and take notice. This section could have come essentially unchanged from a Mozart comic opera – not because there is anything amusing in the setting, but because the treatment of the vocal lines and the lovely woodwind touches have all the bounce and beauty that Mozart brought to the opera stage again and again. Mayr’s style was considered a fusion of German and Italian elements, but this Grande Messa da Requiem actually sounds more French than anything else; and in some senses – including the intensity of its Dies irae – it looks forward to the requiem by Berlioz, written 22 years later. Mayr’s opening funeral march and his excellent brass writing in Libera me are among the highlights of a work that very definitely deserves to be better known and to take its place among the important requiem masses of the 19th century. This (++++) recording should help raise its profile, and that of its composer, significantly.

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