August 04, 2016


Viva Italia: Sacred Music in 17th Century Rome. Duke Vespers Ensemble, Mallarmé Chamber Players, and Washington Cornet & Sackbut Ensemble conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Hymns from King’s, arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury; Tom Etheridge and Richard Gowers, organ. Choir of King’s College. $14.99.

Robert J. Martin: Embrace the Wind! Enkidu String Quartet (Erik Rohde and Samuel Rudy, violins; Benjamin Davis, viola; Lars Krogstad Ortiz, cello). Ravello. $14.99.

Brian Wilbur Grundstrom: Contentment, Poem for Orchestra; Jubilation! Dance for Orchestra; Suite for Chamber Orchestra; American Reflections for Strings and Harp; Chenonceau. Omega Studios Orchestra conducted by Erik Ochsner; Millennium Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin. Navona. $14.99.

     The excellence of a new MSR Classics recording featuring the Duke Vespers Ensemble lies only partly in the quality of the performance and only partly in the individual pieces performed. It lies as well in the totality of a recording whose 10 works effectively transport 21st-century listeners 400 years into the past, to a time of musical ferment occurring in the midst of doctrinal arguments and changes that may seem abstruse or irrelevant to many modern audiences but that led to some significant devellopments in the music of the time. The singers, who perform regularly at Duke University during school terms and also at various early-music festivals, offer beautifully blended sound to which the instruments of the Mallarmé Chamber Players and the Washington Cornet & Sackbut Ensemble, under the direction of Brian Schmidt, add just the right melding of period performance practice and instrumental foundation for the voices. The result is music in which the vocal lines, abetted by the performers’ unusually clear diction, soar convincingly and meaningfully above the instruments while being neatly complemented by them as well. The brief opening plainchant, Deus in Adjutorum Meum Intende, is followed by Charpentier’s Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110) and then two pieces, Ave Regina Caelorum and Salve Regina, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). Then there is a short O Dulcissimum Mariae Nomen by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) before the longest and most intriguing of all the works here, the world première recording of Missa Sancta Maria Magdalenae by Giovanni Felice Sances (1600-1679). Sances, famed in his time but very little known today, was an early opera singer as well as a composer, and although his own works (including cantatas, oratorios, two Stabat Maters and more) are not often performed nowadays, they show a sure sense of workmanship and a genuine concern for communicating the underlying emotions of the words. High points of Missa Sancta Maria Magdalenae include the carefully balanced and restrained Gloria and a Credo in which the vocal lines are handled with particular skill. After Sances’ work on this very well-recorded CD, another Marian piece keeps the focus in the same place from a different perspective. This is Palestrina’s thoughtful and very moving Alma Redemptoris Mater. Then there are two shorter Sances pieces, Ave Maris Stella and Vulnerasti Cor Meum, and finally another piece by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Regina Caeli. Indeed, the Marian emphasis of the entire recording is pronounced, with the composers’ devotional displays differing in sound but having equal warmth and weight. The overall feeling of Viva Italia is one of peace and tranquility, of polyphony in the service of spiritual nourishment.

     If Viva Italia involves travel to a specific place and a time long ago, the new Choir of King’s College, Cambridge release on the ensemble’s own label casts a wider but no less strongly spiritual net. The 20 hymns here, all arranged for voices and organ by the choir’s excellent director, Stephen Cleobury, are still in use today worldwide, and collectively span the entire church year. There is, it has to be noted, a certain sameness in the arrangements, so that even though the words are, of course, different, there is a sense of repetitiveness from hymn to hymn. And Cleobury tends to favor comparatively slow tempos, even in hymns with a bit more brightness to them, such as Glorious things of thee are spoken. However, it is certainly possible to argue that these are, after all, hymns, and intended for church use and thus for a deliberate pace; and while there is much the same form of communication in all the works, that is just what is intended in pieces whose purpose is to praise God in many ways and at all times of the year. In reality, no church service would ever use all 20 of these hymns; they are specifically intended for different times and purposes. Hearing them one or a few at a time creates a much better and stronger effect than hearing all 20 in a row for a full 70 minutes. And the singing is uniformly excellent, lending further credence, if any is needed, to the notion that this choir is one of the world’s best. Because there is a certain sameness to the sound of the music throughout the disc, listeners who are not predisposed to enjoy and be inspired by the words of the hymns will appreciate the singing but will find this a (+++) CD; however, those to whom traditional organized religion is highly meaningful and to whom the hymns speak directly and in a heartfelt way will give it a (++++) rating.

     There is world-spanning and time-spanning intent as well in an extended and ambitious quartet cycle by Robert J. Martin called Embrace the Wind! This includes 16 elements: nine quartets and seven interludes scored as solos or duets. The idea is to celebrate the importance of wind (using, however, strings), from the supposedly pure Native American relationship with it to its importance as sustainable energy for contemporary society. This is a lot of sociopolitical and philosophical baggage to load onto an hour and a quarter of music for a small complement of instruments; unsurprisingly, the results are uneven. Some pieces here are deliberately hypnotic in an industrial context (such as Wind Turbines and Sliding Gears); others are intended as evocative of a spiritual relationship with wind (the opening The Four Navajo Snake Winds); there is a touch of lightness here and there (Whirligig of the Relentless Dancing Bears); and the final, longest piece, Mobile Turning in the Wind, represents power and a dramatic sense of what wind can do. The underlying philosophy, necessary for full enjoyment of the musical sequence, is weak, including everything from the “noble savage” fallacy to the notion that wind energy – which is intermittent and must be carried from the places where it is generated to the places where it is needed by using infrastructure to which self-proclaimed environmentalists vehemently object – is somehow a solution to sustainability. This Ravello CD is nevertheless a (+++) release, because the musical material is sufficiently varied and interesting to overcome the weaknesses of the underlying program of Embrace the Wind! The Enkidu String Quartet certainly embraces the music: the playing is assured, with strong ensemble work and very effective contrasts between the quartet elements and those for single or dual instruments. There is some repetitiveness in Martin's tone painting, but there is also undeniable skill in some of the ways that he uses string techniques to provide effective portrayals of different wind qualities, such as biting, stinging and chilling. This is an interesting work whose ambition gets ahead of itself, but even though it is not fully effective as spiritual exploration or polemic, it has much to recommend it from a strictly musical standpoint.

     There is much of interest as well on a new Navona CD of the music of Brian Wilbur Grundstrom – a release bearing the title, “An Orchestral Journey.” The travel here seems more to be personal for Grundstrom than connected directly to the audience: the five works on the disc, composed over a period of a decade and a half, show the composer exploring differing moods, styles and techniques. The works are arranged chronologically and provide some insight into Grundstrom’s changes in compositional emphasis, although the overall sound of the music is similar enough among the five pieces to indicate that Grundstrom has his own voice that recurs from piece to piece. The earliest work here is Contentment, Poem for Orchestra (1999), and it is a transformative tone poem in the tradition of, say, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. However, what evolves here is mood rather than anything grandly philosophical. Jubilation! Dance for Orchestra (2000) is written in much the same mood throughout, although its rhythmic and thematic explorations eventually lead it to an even brighter and more upbeat conclusion. Suite for Chamber Orchestra (2002) is more emotionally varied than either earlier work, almost a “stages of grief” exploration, with tragic elements giving way to what sounds like acceptance and eventually to an expression of joy that seems, in light of what has come before, somewhat overdone. The work’s three movements make its progress clear: “Before the Fall,” “Avalon” and “Celebration.” But the finale, although it certainly provides a sense of relief, seems somewhat too bright after the first movements’ depth of feeling. American Reflections for Strings and Harp (2009) sounds like film music, energetic and nicely scored but somewhat superficial in its forthright evocation of varied feelings. Chenonceau (2013) is at something of an opposite pole, a subtle work using skillful orchestration and interesting instrumental combinations to provide contrast between strings and woodwinds. The title refers to a historic 16th-century castle in the Loire Valley of France that is known for its garden maze and the way it actually spans the River Cher. The quality of this piece is evident from the fact that it is not necessary to understand its title or know what referents it contains for a listener to be able to enjoy the work purely as music. This is a (+++) CD that, while it may not appeal to all listeners and does not offer material of uniform interest, shows a great deal of compositional skill and provides some very fine and sensitive performances of works by a contemporary composer whose solid craftsmanship offers much to be admired.

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