March 30, 2017
(++++) PRAISE AND LAMENTATION
Poulenc: Mass in G; Salve regina; Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence; Litanies à la Vierge Noir; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; Un soir de neige; Ave verum corpus. The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Gloriæ Dei Cantores and members of The St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and The Washington Master Chorale conducted by Peter Jermihov. Paraclete. $28.99 (SACD).
Mark John McEncroe: Natalie’s Suite—Three Faces of Addiction; Natalie’s Theme; Symphonic Poem—Echoes from a Haunted Past; The Pendulum. Helen Kennedy, piano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. Navona. $14.99.
Gaudete Brass: The John Corigliano Effect. Cedille. $16.
It often takes a tragedy to instill or revive a person’s religious feelings, and that was certainly the case with Francis Poulenc, who returned in earnest to the Catholic faith of his youth only after learning of the death of his friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident in 1936. Poulenc was then 37 years old and starting on a path that would eventually lead to Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) and La Voix humaine (1959). The latest CORO recording by The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers, shows some of the steps the composer was to take along that path – and in so doing displays some very beautiful music in a series of excellent performances. Included here is the first work Poulenc wrote after Ferroud’s death, Litanies à la Vierge Noir, for three-part choir of women or children, plus organ. The title refers to a famous black statue at the shrine of Rocamadour. The work’s dissonant organ part is as striking as Poulenc’s accomplished use of chant-like textures. Also here is the Mass in G of 1937, actually a missa brevis because it lacks the Credo. Scored for soprano soloist and mixed choir a cappella, this work contrasts strikingly with Litanies à la Vierge Noir, having a sense of purity about it that is reflected in music that is on the cool side rather than as deeply heartfelt as might be expected. A work that is heartfelt, by any measure, is Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (1938-39), for four unaccompanied voices, the Latin texts performed here with understanding and a strong sense of involvement. A later set of four motets, Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) for mixed chorus, also gets sensitive and well-balanced treatment. The variety of vocal forces used by Poulenc is one element that makes this recording so interesting to hear. Another is the excellence of The Sixteen in all the vocal combinations, confirming the uniformly high quality of the ensemble. Also on the CD are Salve regina for mixed chorus (1941), Un soir de neige for six voices (1944), and Ave verum corpus for soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto (1952). Of varying lengths and on varying topics, these vocal works all show Poulenc’s skill in vocal writing and his ability to extract differing feelings based on different arrangements and mixtures of voices.
Rachmaninoff’s skill in his a cappella Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil (1915) is of a different order. This is a work of great scope and depth, lasting an hour or more, in 15 movements – the first six setting texts from the hour of Vespers, which sometimes leads to the work as a whole being incorrectly called “Vespers.” This is worth mentioning in connection with the splendid new Paraclete recording of the music conducted by Peter Jermihov, because the whole point of this beautifully sung and elegantly packaged reading is to sweep away misconceptions and misunderstandings of the music and try to perform it as Rachmaninoff himself would have heard it and wanted it to be heard by others. The dynamism and strength of the music come through particularly strongly here, and the 77-member choir has a rich, round and very warm tonal center around which the soloists build impressively. Those soloists are very fine singers from the National Opera of Ukraine, contralto Mariya Berezovska and tenor Dmitry Ivanchenko. Ivanchenko is also one of the two singers delivering the clergy exclamations that are integral to the work’s structure; the other is Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The bona fides of this performance are clearly substantial – but more than that, Jermihov and the singers make an exceptional case for the inherent quality of the music that Rachmaninoff produced here, not long before Russian Orthodoxy was to be officially suppressed under the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. The Nunc dimittis, which Ivanchenko delivers particularly feelingly, was sung at Rachmaninoff’s own funeral, at his request, and it is easy to see why this beautiful and heartfelt music so attracted the man who composed it. It is an exceptionally difficult movement for the basses to sing, requiring them to go almost unbelievably low in their range – a feat the singers here manage to fine effect. All-Night Vigil actually contains three different forms of chant, the varying intricacies of which will likely not be apparent to most listeners – but what matters is how well Rachmaninoff fits them together, and how seamlessly this entire sprawling work comes together in a performance whose SACD sound makes the whole experience of the All-Night Vigil all the more moving.
It is not, of course, necessary to use voices to express deep feelings, whether positive or negative. Mark John McEncroe tries to do so purely instrumentally in the works on a new Navona CD – particularly Natalie’s Suite, a three-movement piece in which he seeks to explore the addiction and depression with which his daughter has tried to cope and with which he himself is familiar from his own life. The work is a very extended one, its three movements lasting some 50 minutes. And the vast majority of it is very dark indeed: “Facing the Demons” runs 22 minutes and “Into the Dark Spaces” 21, while the concluding “Moving into the Light” is a seven-minute attempt to deliver optimism that does not really work – there is simply too much darkness in the first two movements for the small amount of balance here to be effective. McEncroe takes a clever approach to the obsessive negativity of the topic he explores musically by having the work stay in the home key throughout. But while this sounds like a good idea and in some respects does help show what it feels like to be trapped in a seemingly endless cycle, it is not an approach that works very well from a strictly musical standpoint. Natalie’s Suite simply goes on too long, revisiting the same territory again and again – or, perhaps more accurately, becoming trapped in a single place and struggling vainly to get out of it. True, this is a compelling image for addictive behavior and depressive feelings, but that does not make the music itself any more involving. Pianist Helen Kennedy and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore explore the work with care and consistency, probing what depths it has – but the music’s gestures repeat themselves after a while, and while its intentions are certainly of the best, it is not ultimately very successful in conveying the depths and difficulties of the subject it tries to illustrate. Also on this (+++) CD are three much shorter pieces that explore essentially the same territory as the extended suite. Natalie’s Theme is a solo-piano work focusing on the composer’s daughter in much the same way the orchestral suite does, while The Pendulum, also for solo piano, is a further exploration of a negative emotional cycle from which one tries to break out, only to return to the depths yet again. Symphonic Poem—Echoes from a Haunted Past is for orchestra without piano, and it too is an attempt to face one’s inner demons and understand them, if not necessarily overcome them. Al the music here is thoughtfully planned and well-constructed, but there is a bleakness throughout the CD that, no matter how intentional in terms of the emotional undercurrents of the material, works against any sort of penetrating connection with listeners. This is a monochromatic release that insists, again and again, that it has something important and meaningful to say – indeed, insists to such a degree that the importance and meaningfulness turn out to be less than McEncroe clearly wants them to be.
If the sampling of McEncroe’s music is uniformly downbeat, that of John Corigliano and his students on a new Cedille release is uniformly positive in emotion and appeal. The concept of this CD by the brass quintet Gaudete Brass and other performers is an intriguing one: to celebrate Corigliano’s 75th birthday (which he reached in 2013) with suitably celebratory fanfares, dances and, well, celebrations. Only two pieces here were originally written for brass by Corigliano himself: Antiphon and Fanfares to Music, the latter interestingly filled with references to Schubert’s famous song, An die Musik. A third work on the CD, Gazebo Dances: Overture, is also by Corigliano, but this is a brass arrangement by Cliff Colnot – and a highly effective one it is. Much of the success of this disc rests with the fine playing by the members of Gaudete Brass: Bill Baxtresser and Charles Russell Roberts (trumpets), Phil Kassel (horn), Paul Von Hoff (trombone), and Scott Tegge (tuba). There is plenty of warmth in the ensembles and not a little bite when that is called for, as it sometimes is on this disc in the works by composers other than Corigliano. They include David Sampson, whose brief Entrance is the one work here that is not a world première recording, and who also offers Still; Jonathan Newman, whose Prayers of Steel is an interestingly contrasted four-movement suite that veers from stylized dance to cityscape; Steven Bryant, whose short sevenfive nicely complements Corigliano’s Antiphon, which follows it on this recording; Jeremy Howard Beck’s Roar; and Conrad Winslow’s interestingly conceived The Record of a Lost Tribe, whose three evocative movements are called “Artifacts,” “History” and “Ceremonies.” Most of these works are Gaudete Brass commissions in connection with the Corigliano tribute, although Still and the brass arrangement of Gazebo Dances: Overture were created later – specifically for this recording. Fans of Corigliano who want to experience the tribute to him vicariously are the natural audience for this (+++) disc, in which the playing is uniformly first-class but the works themselves are somewhat variable in interest and in how well they lie on the brass instruments. There is a certain “in crowd” feeling to the project as a whole, which is fine for Corigliano fanciers but may wear a bit thin for others during the CD’s 56 minutes: the composers’ styles are not highly distinctive, except for Corigliano’s own – which especially shows creativity in Fanfares to Music, in which two brass ensembles (quintet and sextet) play from different locations so as to keep their sounds separate. This CD is a specialty item, but one that will especially enjoyable for listeners who enjoy Corigliano’s music and ones impressed by the quality of the playing of Gaudete Brass.