January 05, 2017
(+++) SOUNDS OF THE SACRED AND SECULAR
Pierre de Manchicourt: Missa Reges Terrae; Reges Terrae; Caro Mea; Ne Reminiscaris; Vidi Speciosum; Regina Caeli. The Choir of St. Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Hilary Tann: Choral Music; Hildegard von Bingen: O Deus; Rex Noster Promptus Est. Capella Clausura conducted by Amelia LeClair. Navona. $14.99.
Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum: Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm. Ravello. $14.99.
Scott Perkins: The Stolen Child; A Word Out of the Sea; The World of Dream. Audivi conducted by Scott Perkins. Navona. $14.99.
Sacred choral music of the 16th century is certainly a niche interest, and such music from a now-little-known composer even more so. Yet there are undiscovered beauties aplenty in the works of Pierre de Manchicourt on a new MSR Classics CD. Manchicourt (c. 1510-1564) is yet another of the many composers who, famous in their own time, soon fell into obscurity after their death – and the music on this disc helps show why. It is uniformly beautiful – Manchicourt was clearly highly skilled at vocal writing in the forms of his time (principally masses and motets). But even though Manchicourt adopted some more-forward-looking approaches in his later motets, producing smoother melodic lines and frequent imitative vocal sections, all his music sounds firmly planted within his lifespan and more old-fashioned than that of such near-contemporaries as Nicolas Gombert. Manchicourt’s innovations were modest ones, surely sufficient to make his music interesting when it was composed but not enough to give it staying power thereafter. Nevertheless, there is extraordinary vocal beauty here, whether in the extended five-movement Missa Reges Terrae or in the five shorter works performed with great vocal smoothness and lovely blending by the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields under David Shuler. This choir is diligent about following historic performance practices, and the result is a recording whose lovely flow is evident from start to finish. The voices themselves are excellently balanced, and Shuler draws attention to the occasional unexpected elements of Manchicourt’s music – including unexpected dissonances and some difficult-to-negotiate vocal leaps – without allowing them to dominate what is essentially music planted firmly in the time in which it was written. This is a disc for people whose love of Renaissance-era music encompasses less-known as well as familiar composers, as long as their works sound as warmly convincing as they do here.
Lyricism and fine formal balance are also characteristic of the contemporary music of Hilary Tann (born 1947), although of course what she creates is for ears attuned to very sounds from those of Manchicourt’s time. Yet Tann has a strong sense of the past, and this is quite explicit on a new Navona recording featuring not only her own music but also several arrangements of music by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), one of the earliest female composers whose works have survived. For example, there is an unusual sequence in the beginning of the first work on the CD, von Bingen’s O Deus (from her opera Ordo Virtutum), that Tann quotes in some form in most of her own works on this disc. Tann is Welsh and uses several texts by Welsh poets in the music on this CD; she also sets words written by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the first published female writer from England’s North American colonies. Tann is given to combinations as well as to straightforward settings of existing texts: Exultet Terra, the most interesting work here and the longest by far (its five movements last more than 40 minutes), includes both biblical verses and poems by well-known Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Amelia LeClair leads the ensemble Capella Clausura with great fervor and intensity in all these works, both the a cappella pieces and Exultet Terra, which uses double choir plus English horn, two oboes and two bassoons – with each movement having different but complementary instrumentation. Tann’s music and LeClair’s performances are, to be sure, on the rarefied side, but this material has significant communicative power for listeners interested in modern vocal works that interpret and reinterpret the religious experiences of long ago and the spiritual (if not traditionally religious) ones of more-recent times.
The Tann CD is in many ways a collaborative effort between her and LeClair – and a Ravello disc featuring works by Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum is an even more tightly knit collaboration. This seems to be a CD celebrating the friendship of Lehrman and Mandelbaum, intended for their circle of mutual friends rather than for listeners unfamiliar with their work. Some pieces here are instrumental; some are vocal. Some use Russian poetry; some use American words. Some music is for large ensemble (performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande); some is for a chamber group (Meridian String Quartet). Some is written by Mandelbaum and performed by Lehrman as pianist (Prelude, Love Is Not All); some is written by Lehrman and conducted by Mandelbaum (Bloody Kansas); some has Lehrman as both composer and performer (An Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Love Song Cycle). The pieces themselves are as varied and variegated as the performances, sometimes using the alternative tunings of which Mandelbaum is fond (although more often using conventional tunings); sometimes being based on twelvetone serialism and microtonality; sometimes being serious, sometimes playful; sometimes emotionally expressive, sometimes reserved and rather cold. It is very difficult for a listener unacquainted with these composers to get a handle on what is happening on this disc, which is essentially a miscellany of 23 tracks that switch form, substance and sound repeatedly not only among themselves but also within individual pieces. Assembled with skill and (in the vocal pieces) sung with feeling by soprano Helene Williams and bass-baritone Alexander Mikhalëv, the music never really gels, never seems to have a particular direction or purpose, instead progressing hither and thither in a fashion that seems arbitrary even though it is no doubt clear to Lehrman and Mandelbaum (and perhaps to those who know them well). Individual items here are evocative and interesting, but the CD as a whole has an insularity about it that makes it seem more of an “in crowd” experience than one designed for listeners who are not already part of the inner circle of these composer/performers.
Like the vocal works of Lehrman and Mandelbaum, those of Scott Perkins – as heard on a new Navona CD – are essentially (if not completely) secular rather than sacred in orientation. But these Perkins choral works tie clearly to older choral music in ways somewhat similar to those employed by Hilary Tann, although not used as explicitly. The textures of Perkins’ choral music are clearly contemporary, and some of his techniques (such as his elaboration of the sound of a single letter) are quite modern; yet his vocal colors, frequent use of modal language, and direct expressiveness recall the old a cappella tradition and do not deviate much from it. The Stolen Child, featuring tenor Tyler Ray and baritone Dan Moore, is a dark six-movement work using poems by Yeats, Whitman, Auden, and Walter de la Mare. Its skillful combination of the solo voices with those of the ensemble Audivi (three each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses) is especially well handled by Perkins as conductor: he flawlessly interweaves the choral and solo sounds to produce a performance of considerable expressiveness. The five movements of A Word Out of the Sea are similarly expressive, if not as tightly knit into a focused narrative; here the ensemble and tenor Tim Keeler engage in complementary tone-painting in which the final movement, “Whereto Answering, the Sea,” achieves something approaching serenity, if scarcely finality. The five movements of The World of Dream are strictly choral and emphatically nocturnal, with the work’s overall impression more monochromatic than that of the other two pieces here: even brief forays into lighter, speedier territory soon fall back into a kind of somnolence. The vocal writing is assured and well-designed throughout all these works, if not especially distinctive: it is more a blend of multiple styles than a single style all its own. Perkins nevertheless shows himself a fine vocal craftsman, sure in his techniques and in devising effective ways of communicating solely through the human voice. A cappella music of any time is not to all tastes, but Perkins shows that it can still be effective in modern (if often backward-looking) guise, reaching out effectively to those who appreciate the medium.