December 24, 2015
(++++) VOCALS THROUGH THE AGES
Anne Boleyn’s Songbook. Alamire conducted by David Skinner; Claire Williamson, voice; Jacob Heringman, lute; Kirsty Whatley, harp. Obsidian. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Brahms and Bruckner: Motets. Tenebrae conducted by Nigel Short. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Cavalcade of Martial Songs. The Band of the Welsh Guards. British Military Music Archive. $16.99.
William Bolcom: Canciones de Lorca (2006); Prometheus (2009). René Barbera, tenor; Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: The Gift of Life; Seven Sacred Pieces. Cambridge Singers and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Rutter. Collegium Records. $16.99.
The expressiveness of the human voice, although used in different ways over the centuries, has always offered a direct musical connection to listeners, and continues to do so today, as evidenced by works that stretch from the time of Elizabeth I of England to Elizabeth II, the current queen. The mother of the first Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn, second of the six wives of King Henry VIII, none of whom managed to produce the male heir that the king desperately wanted – so desperately that he created the Anglican Church in large part so he could move from wife to wife after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his first marriage. Anne (1501-1536) is usually seen as a tragic figure, accused of multiple adulteries – at least some of them certainly false – and beheaded so that the king could move on to Jane Seymour. A new Obsidian release featuring the vocal ensemble Alamire, conducted by David Skinner, sees Anne somewhat differently, through the lens of a songbook assembled for her after she developed very cultivated musical tastes at the French court. This recording is particularly intriguingly arranged, focusing primarily on music written by the greatest composers of the 15th and early 16th centuries, including Josquin Desprez and Jean Mouton, but interspersing their vocal works with French chansons of the time and a few instrumental interludes performed on lute and harp. The Desprez works are the most substantial here and the most affecting, including Stabat mater dolorosa, Liber generationis and Praeter rerum seriem. But the music by Mouton and less-known composers Loyset Compère, Antoine de Févin, Antoine Brumel and Claudin de Sermisy is also very well-made. There are some anonymous works here, too, the most affecting being the final piece on the second CD, O Deathe rock me asleep, which is not from the Anne Boleyn songbook at all but is offered as a kind of reminder of the young queen’s sad fate. The release is subtitled “Music & Passions of a Tudor Queen,” and although the passions for which Anne was executed were of a distinctly worldly sort, there is something transcendent in the ones communicated by these poised, fervent and beautifully performed works.
Centuries later, with many musical, social and spiritual developments having occurred, music remained uniquely communicative of a striving for higher realms, often continuing to be written in the same Latin that was used in Anne’s time – indeed, sometimes to the exact same words. An exceptionally well-sung Signum Classics recording of motets by Brahms and Bruckner shows how strongly old words continued to communicate right through the Romantic era. Bruckner is here represented by nine works that will likely be quite unfamiliar even to listeners well-versed in his music, since it is for his symphonies and Mass settings that he is best known. The ensemble Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short, brings great feeling to Aequalis Nos. 1 and 2, Virga Jesse, Ecce sacerdos, Christus factus est, Locus iste, Os justi, Ave Maria, and Tota pulchra es. The sincerity and straightforward belief of Bruckner are everywhere apparent in these beautifully set works. And the Brahms material, which is intermingled with Bruckner’s, is even more interesting. Brahms was a fine composer for the voice, although he is not often thought of as favoring vocal works; and although he was not devout in the rather unquestioning way that Bruckner was, he was quite capable of producing works of religious beauty and sincerity. Indeed, his version of Ave Maria contrasts with and complements Bruckner’s quite well. The canonic writing of Geistliches Lied, which in some ways anticipates Ein deutsches Requiem, and an actual excerpt from that grand work, How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings, bear further testimony to Brahms’ expressive vocal skill. But the most interesting Brahms pieces here are two late ones: Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109 and Drei motetten, Op. 110. The first of these includes three hymns of praise for what was then a newly united German nation, with the first and third using text from the Old Testament and the second drawing on the New Testament. Brahms’ sensitivity to the vocal colors of a mixed chorus is especially telling here – many of his earlier choral works were for men’s or women’s groups, not both together – and the combination of religious and secular meaning of the hymns is noteworthy, especially in the third, whose message is that Germany must stand united to defend itself. The three motets in Op. 110, Brahms’ last work for mixed choir, look back for inspiration into the distant past – not quite to the time of Anne Boleyn, but to that of Gabrieli and Schütz. No. 1 draws on the Old Testament, while Nos. 2 and 3 are Lutheran chorale poems; and the settings, which emphasize antiphonal effects, are judiciously managed and very effective. The first-rate performances on this CD will open for at least some listeners a new world in terms of Brahms’ and Bruckner’s music, showcasing infrequently heard works that are as germane to the composers’ output as are their much-better-known large-scale pieces.
Not long after the 1890s, the decade during which both Brahms and Bruckner died, the world was at war, and the old certainties of both religion and earthly life seemed far less sure. It was midway through the Great War, in 1916, that The Band of the Welsh Guards was established, and a new recording issued by British Military Music Archive commemorates a century of the band’s existence and performances. The CD offers old recordings, made between 1931 and 1940; that fact and the focus on this specific ensemble’s history make this a limited-interest (+++) release. The remastering is quite well done, and the decision to leave in some of the surface noise and other occasional aural distractions of the original recordings was a wise one, giving the historical importance of the performances greater immediacy. The works themselves, both vocal and instrumental, range from the very familiar (Sousa’s marches The Stars and Stripes Forever and The Washington Post) to the little-known outside Wales (eight Welsh National Songs performed with tenor David Lloyd). Ten of the offerings here are songs and marches with vocal choruses: the two Sousa works, The Changing of the Guard, Blaze Away, Marche Lorraine, Cupid’s Army, The Chelsea Pensioners and The Aldershot Tattoo, plus two multi-tune works called Cavalcade of Martial Songs and Songs by the Camp Fireside. And there are two rather jingoistic but quite effective items offered midway through the recording, featuring bass-baritone Foster Richardson, a children’s choir and a grand organ: Let Us Sing unto Their Majesties and Land of Hope and Glory, whose words are set to the middle section of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. The CD is something of a curiosity, of interest mainly to those who feel a special connection to historical military music and/or to Wales. For such listeners, this disc comes across as a welcome rarity.
The unique expressiveness possible through vocal music continues to attract composers in the 21st century, as shown in a (++++) Naxos CD featuring recent works by William Bolcom. Bolcom is a particularly facile composer for the voice, and his extended Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984), which sets 46 poems by William Blake and lasts three hours, is a masterwork. Canciones de Lorca and Prometheus are lesser pieces but are still showcases for Bolcom’s easy skill in stylistic blending and exceptional ability to produce music that reflects and enhances multiple emotions. Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a theater director as well as a poet and playwright, and Bolcom here shows himself sensitive to the theatrical elements of García Lorca’s multifaceted works, which are by turns passionate, mysterious and amusing. Bolcom also accepts the surrealism that pervades García Lorca’s poetry, using an understanding of flamenco and other Spanish music to create a series of nine evocative, involving and mercurial songs that collectively make up a fine tribute to García Lorca as well as an exceptional musical work in its own right. The performance led by Carl St. Clair is a strong one, attentive to the work’s rhythmic variety and the coloristic effects that Bolcom skillfully evokes. The performance of Prometheus is fine, too – here pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the Pacific Chorale have important roles and fulfill them skillfully – but the music itself is less involving. The reason may be that the material is simply more conventional: Bolcom draws on the legend of Prometheus chained to a rock after delivering fire to humans to make a point about the modern world being “chained” to technology – but hopefully being able to use it to move toward understanding and peace. The naiveté of the message is somewhat at odds with the sophistication of Bolcom’s musicianship, and while Prometheus has effective moments and is undeniably well-constructed both vocally and instrumentally, it does not sustain interest as well as some other Bolcom works – although it is certainly heartfelt in this fine performance.
Equally heartfelt and at least equally naïve is the featured work on a new (+++) CD from Collegium Records featuring John Rutter conducting his own The Gift of Life. Subtitled “Six Canticles of Creation,” this 40-minute celebratory choral piece is essentially an extended hymn to how wonderful Earth and all the things upon it are. The moods are no less varied – and no more varied – than those found in the music of Anne Boleyn’s time: from contemplative and prayerful to inspirational. Rutter specifically sees this piece as a sort of anti-Requiem, celebrating life in all its majesty in a way analogous to that in which a Requiem acknowledges death and its inevitability while seeking to provide peace to those left behind. Requiem words are well-known, but for his life-focused work, Rutter had to choose his own texts, and in some cases write them. For example, the third movement, Hymn to the Creator of Light, was originally written in 1992 in memory of composer Herbert Howells. The relentless affirmation of The Gift of Life, its studied optimism and certainty of positivism, become cloying after a time: there is considerable beauty in parts of this broadly conceived work, but just too much brightness and insistence on goodness – as wonderful as the sun is, staring at it too long is scarcely good for the eyes. The remaining seven pieces on the CD, which are shorter and were written for a variety of occasions, come across somewhat better through the variety of their moods and the felicity with which they are orchestrated (five of them were originally composed for voices with organ or small ensemble; here all seven pieces are accompanied by full orchestra). The first four of these shorter works are Give the king thy judgements [sic], O God; A flower remembered; The Quest; and Psalm 150. The last three pieces are Christmas carols, which in their simplicity and melodiousness speak feelingly to the season: Christ is the morning star, All bells in paradise, and Rejoice and sing. Rutter is certainly adept and tuneful (rather cloyingly so) in both large-scale and smaller works. Here it is the briefer pieces that more-effectively encapsulate his thoughts and feelings, communicating clearly to listeners without evincing any particular need to dull the quality of their messages by bringing them to an audience repeatedly or at too-extended a length. Rutter’s sentiment – indeed, his sentimentality – is apparent throughout this CD; it becomes treacly, however, only in the extended realm of The Gift of Life.