June 16, 2016
(+++) THE POWER OF VOCALS
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater; Vivaldi: Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro,” RV 169; Nisi Dominus, RV 608. Silvia Frigato, soprano; Sara Mingardo, contralto; Accademia degli Astrusi conducted by Federico Ferri. Concerto. $16.99.
Dan Redfield: A Hopeful Place. Kristi Holden, soprano; Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Dan Redfield. Navona. $14.99.
Paula Diehl: Works for Large and Small Ensemble from 1982-2015. Navona. $16.99 (2 CDs).
The voice’s ability to communicate emotions intertwined with and more specific than those expressed by instruments has been a basic element of musical composition for centuries, with neither vocal nor instrumental elements of many pieces being paramount – instead, they interact to enhance each other. Composers such as Pergolesi and Vivaldi were well aware of ways to maintain focus on words while using instruments to accentuate texts and expand the impact of the vocals themselves. Whether Pergolesi did this completely successfully in his Stabat Mater is a matter of opinion and, to some extent, a matter of taste. The work is quite popular now and became so not long after the composer’s death – but it is undeniably a comparatively light and operatic treatment of the text, placing it in much the same position as the much later Stabat Mater by Rossini, which also seems on the light side and certainly lacks the gloom that Germanic composers bring to the subject. In our more-secular-than-Pergolesi’s age, the operatic vocal treatment of the Stabat Mater texts is precisely what makes the work appealing (the same is true of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, for that matter). It may simply be that Italian religious expressions, even when dealing with topics as emotionally deep as those in the Stabat Mater, simply take a less gloom-laden view of the material, perhaps with an eye on the blissful eternity ushered in by Christ’s sacrifice rather than the deep pain of his crucifixion. Certainly the performance by Accademia degli Astrusi under Federico Ferri, on the Concerto label, does not lack for emotion, and there is considerable subtlety in the playing as well as the soloists’ singing. Pergolesi’s work is paired a bit oddly with Vivaldi’s early Nisi Dominus (preceded by a sinfonia that bridges the vocal pieces). This extended, ambitious nine-movement setting of Psalm 126 is a rather uneasy mixture of styles and scoring, including two simple continuo arias, one aria in siciliana style, an accompanied recitative, a Gloria that is fascinatingly dark and is not only the longest movement but also the most impressive one, and other material as well. Here too the performance is quite well done, but the Pergolesi and Vivaldi fit rather uneasily together, although the skill of the respective composers in merging and mingling vocal and instrumental material cannot be gainsaid.
Three centuries on, composers continue to search for ways to use vocal and instrumental elements of their works to strengthen and supplement each other. Nowadays they often look to multiple musical styles to express different elements of a work’s overall emotion. That is Dan Redfield’s approach in A Hopeful Place, a nine-movement song cycle that, unlike Pergolesi’s and Vivaldi’s focus on the promises of religion, is firmly rooted in life in Earth. The work, heard on a new Navona release, traces the full life of a woman, from birth to death, using some of the same operatic techniques employed by Pergolesi – very much updated, to be sure – and combining them with jazz (a favorite of contemporary composers), musical-theater style, and (especially in meditative sections) more-traditional classical approaches. The text, by John Gabriel Koladziej, is absolutely central to communicating the emotions of the work, and while it is not exceptionally thoughtful or moving, it is more than adequate for its and the composer’s purpose. Some listeners may find the expressiveness of A Hopeful Place to be quite appropriate, but others may consider the obviousness of its verbal and musical elements a bit much: the enthusiasm of Childhood, the teenage angst of Words They Never Say, and so on. The movement called Vocalise, as its title indicates, features vocal sounds but no words, and is especially effective as a result; the Vocalise theme appears in several other places and helps knit A Hopeful Place together. The work’s title comes from its seventh movement, which draws on the pain felt by so many after the terrorist murders in New York City on September 11, 2001, and the struggle to regain a sense of hope afterwards. Redfield conducts his music skillfully, and the cycle is well sung by Kristi Holden, who gave the work its first performance, in 2010. The elements of pain and hope toward the end are carefully and clearly communicated both vocally and instrumentally – but they are also, like the feelings explored earlier with greater ebullience, presented in rather obvious ways.
Things are much less obvious in the music – both vocal and instrumental – of Paula Diehl, one of the composers who insist (like Schoenberg in his time and Harry Partch more recently) that existing methods of music-making are inadequate for what they want to express and that they must therefore invent new ones. Obviously a listener’s interest in and comfort with these new methods is a major determinant, perhaps the major determinant, of the music’s effectiveness. Diehl’s approach, a system called “Separation,” uses what Diehl calls “interlocking fourths” (not the same thing as the “stacked fourths” employed by other composers, including Copland). The objective is to create music that highlights the unique elements of individual instruments and the human voice so as to combine them more effectively. Listeners, of course, cannot be expected (much less required) to know what a composer is doing to create a given piece, and have the right to judge based on their experience of a work rather than the method of its construction. The vocal works on a two-CD Navona release of Diehl’s music are On Wisdom and Prosper the Word, two choral pieces performed by the Slovak Radio Chorus; and Wedding Day and Anyone, which are songs featuring Bradford Gleim, baritone, and Chiharu Naruse, piano. The choral works are filled with strong dissonance and atonality both in the voices and in the organ part (played by Albert Goken), and feature the sorts of interjections (vocal and instrumental) associated with dramatic moments in film and TV scores. The baritone-and-piano pieces have a singsong quality that is not quite Sprechstimme, and both proceed at a slogging pace that drags on their potential for effective communication. The remaining pieces here are orchestral on the first CD and chamber music on the second. The works for orchestra include In Hand (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský), Right of Way (Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Stankovsky), Till the Walls Fall (Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimír Válek), and Insiders (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka). The chamber pieces are Gambit (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players conducted by Vronský), On Course (Moyzes Quartet), Gusts (for solo piano, played by Naruse), Illumination (Robert St. Cyr, organ, and Jonathan Roberts, piano), and Meeting Places (again, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players conducted by Vronský). Interestingly, Diehl does have a distinctive style that establishes itself throughout these pieces, which were written (as the release’s title indicates) between 1982 and 2015. It is surely her self-created compositional technique that renders these works recognizable. But it also renders them very much the same – there is little to distinguish a piece with one title from a piece with a different one, and generally not much that is distinctive even from movement to movement with a given work. In addition, there is something exceptionally grating about the instrumentation and the highly angular, stop-and-start nature of the non-thematic material of which these works are built. Listeners who find any of Diehl’s pieces congenial or involving will likely be pleased by all of them; conversely, those who are not attracted to her particular compositional method and the sounds that it produces in one instance are unlikely to find any of these pieces, whether instrumental or vocal-and-instrumental, especially attractive.