May 05, 2016
(+++) VARIATIONS IN VOCALS
Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountain. Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Emily Fons, Jay Hunter Morris, Roger Honeywell, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Deborah Nansteel, Robert Pomakov; Santa Fe Opera Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Simple Gifts: American and British Art Songs of the 20th Century. New York City Children’s Chorus conducted by Mary Wannamaker Huff. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Galina Grigorjeva: Works for Chamber Choir and Chamber Ensemble. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Hillier. Ondine. $16.99.
Opera is, or can be, the ultimate vocal experience for performers and listeners alike. But for it to be that, it has to be a great deal more compelling than Jennifer Higdon’s much-anticipated but ultimately flaccid Cold Mountain. Based on a best-selling novel by Charles Frazier that won a National Book Award and was turned into an Oscar-winning film, Cold Mountain would seem to have had a lot going for it as an opera, including experienced librettist Gene Scheer and well-known contemporary composer Higdon (here making her first foray into the operatic milieu). Unfortunately, PentaTone’s live, world première recording of the Santa Fe Opera production of the work simply shows the opera to be an over-extended, overdone, awkward and ultimately feckless production. Cold Mountain, the novel, is yet another of those books about a Confederate soldier getting away from fighting for a cause in which he no longer believes – apparently no one believed in the Confederacy during its entire existence – and seeking, in the mode of Odysseus, to get back to the woman he loves; the difference from The Odyssey lies in the thoroughly unsurprising (for a “big” novel and an opera) tragic, or at least thoroughly unhappy, ending. Higdon cannot seem to figure out what to do with the work: it is not very atmospheric (some bluegrass would have been welcome), not very lyrical, not very dissonant, not very much of anything. Having the parted lovers be mezzo-soprano (Isabel Leonard) and baritone (Nathan Gunn) rather than the traditional soprano and tenor should have led to some interesting vocals, but it does not. Dramatic parts of the score are almost always underlined with brassy snarling and growls from the low strings. Moments intended as tender are evoked by warmth in higher strings and a kind of shimmering effect in the winds. Again and again. There is sentimentality aplenty here, but very little genuine sentiment: Leonard is prim, not persuasive, and Gunn sings strongly but lacks either the weariness or passion that the music is supposed to evoke. There are some complex ensembles that are supposed to interweave the stories of the lead characters; but although a few hymnlike choruses are effective enough, the ensemble pieces as a whole actually undermine the eventual reunion of the lovers, since listeners have been hearing them sing together all opera long. And Cold Mountain is long: two-and-a-half hours of music, conducted with care and clarity by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, but never really taking off in terms of either story or music. The dialogue is actually more interesting than most of the musical material, with Higdon creating something between speaking and full-scale singing that nevertheless does not come across as Sprechstimme. But her creativity is far less apparent in the often-turgid segments in which characters sing of their feelings. There is supposed to be a sense of transformation in Cold Mountain, accompanied by an underlying sense of solidity and loyalty to one’s love – all along the lines of the Odyssey, except for the twisting of the story to make it end badly for the principals. But there is no sense of transformation in the music, which is filled with modernistic sound wisps and ostinati, clattery combat scenes that come across as rather silly, and a straitened sense of orchestral color and dynamics that serves the uninvolving story poorly. This is only a (++) opera, although the sheer quality of the recording and the skill of some of the supporting singers raises the release to a low (+++) rating. Opera can be complex, but Cold Mountain would have been better had it been simpler in both narrative and musical presentation.
The contrast of Cold Mountain with the music performed by the New York City Children’s Chorus at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church is considerable. The MSR Classics release of works by Vaughan Williams, Barber, Copland, Britten and Bernstein, plus pieces by less-known Scott Nathan Louis (born 1968), John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), and Ernest Charles (1895-1984), is like a breath of fresh air after Higdon’s stultifying, high-aiming vocals. The CD’s title comes, of course, from Copland’s Simple Gifts, the fourth of the 10 Old American Songs performed here with sensitivity and spirit, led by Mary Wannamaker Huff with simplicity and stylistic effectiveness. The CD’s title could refer equally well to Bernstein’s Simple Song, sung – along with his There Is a Garden – with winning openness. Barber’s The Daisies and Sure on This Shining Night offer a thematic contrast that also appears, in different musical guise, in the Britten songs The Sally Gardens and The New Year Carol; the composer’s Oliver Cromwell is here as well. There are three songs from Vaughan Williams: The Vagabond, The Call and The Roadside Fire. From Niles the singers present The Carol of the Birds, Go ’Way from My Window, I Wonder as I Wander, and What Songs Were Sung, the last of these having interesting parallels to Charles’ When I Have Sung My Songs. The single work by Louis offered here is Shenando. There are 26 songs in all, averaging just over two minutes apiece, and every one is direct in expression, set with care and sensitivity to the words and their underlying emotion, and not attempting to essay great heights of passion or grand echoes of epics of the distant past. The children’s voices fit the material well, although it is true that their sound becomes somewhat monochromatic (to mix a metaphor) as song after song is performed. This is thus one of those CDs best heard a bit at a time rather than all at once: it is more involving and altogether more pleasant when each composer’s pieces can be savored on their own, when listeners can pay close attention to Andrew Henderson’s fine piano and organ playing in support of the chorus, when the mostly straightforward emotions of the pieces can be given time to sink in and attain what depth they possess.
The music of Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (born 1962) aims for deeper emotions through the filter of longstanding formal religious topics. A new Ondine recording of her works for chamber choir and chamber ensembles provides a fair sampling of her style, which bears a strong resemblance to that of Arvo Pärt – indeed, it is to devotees of Pärt’s minimalist music that Grigorjeva’s will primarily appeal, although she does treat harmony in some ways that are different from his. The “choir concerto” Svjatki (1997/2004) opens this CD, mixing texts from Russian folklore with strictly religious ones as it moves toward a clear equivalence of the return of spring with the resurrection of Christ. Salve Regina (2013), for soprano, cello and organ, is a forthright setting of familiar text. Diptych (2011), for male choir, juxtaposes two Russian Orthodox texts, Lord, now let your servant depart in peace and Do not lament me, O Mother. A solo-instrument work, Lament for Recorder (2000) does not really work at its eight-minute length, but offers a portal to a sustained sound world that a skilled player (Conrad Steinmann in this recording) can manipulate gently, to good effect. Nature Morte (2008), for mixed choir, features three movements, in English, with texts by Joseph Brodsky, the first giving the work its overall title; the others are The Butterfly and Who Are You? The final piece here, In Paradisum (2012), is for female choir, using Latin liturgical text to communicate a sincere hope for the ultimate joy proffered by traditional Catholic and related religions. The somewhat monothematic nature of the texts that Grigorjeva chooses to set, combined with the minimalism and mysticism of her settings, mean that her work will appeal to only a limited set of listeners and will seem simply dull to those not attuned to her religious beliefs and the specific musical forms with which she chooses to express them. This is well-made contemporary music of a very specific type, its pleasures available to those who find both its concepts and their presentation congenial.