March 08, 2018


Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance; Pärt: Magnificat; Nunc dimittis. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Kim André Arnesen: Choral Works. Kantorei conducted by Joel Rinsema; Alicia Rigsby, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Richard Danielpour: String Quartets Nos. 5-7. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomás Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

     It is no surprise that attempts at spiritual connection through music continue unabated in the works of 20th- and 21st-century composers – after all, attempts to understand the world and the place of faith within it are many thousands of years old. But it is a bit surprising that so many spiritually oriented works continue using an older musical language than is found in purely secular contemporary music. To be sure, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was eclectic, even small-c catholic in his musical tastes and orientation, even before he became a convert to large-C Catholicism in 1982. Schnittke’s later works tend to be withdrawn, even bleak, but his Psalms of Repentance (1988) are more than that. Using anonymous texts from 16th-century Russia in a piece created to celebrate a thousand years of Russian Christianity, the music is certainly dark, even gloomy, and it is also a very deliberate stylistic blend: traditional harmonies, often in thick textures, are juxtaposed with tone clusters, and highly chromatic passages appear alongside ones written using whole-tone scales. The melodic and rhythmic elements of Psalms of Repentance recall those of Russian liturgical chant only distantly, and while there is considerable beauty sprinkled throughout the work – the Sixth Psalm is especially lovely in its ethereality – the most telling element of the whole piece is the Twelfth Psalm, which is the longest of the set and is, remarkably, entirely wordless. The humming of the chorus offers an inevitable feeling of chantlike, meditative spirituality that is quite different from the Catholicism explored throughout the first eleven psalms, which tend to be bleak and dour despite many beauties in the choral writing – and even though all are delivered with warmth, skill and little apparent difficulty by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš, despite the complexity of some of the musical writing. This is scarcely music for all tastes or all forms of spiritual seeking, but it is moving and effective despite its generally downbeat tone. And new light is shed on Schnittke’s settings by the inspired decision to include on this new BIS CD two shorter spiritual works by Estonia’s own Arvo Pärt, born just a year later than Schnittke (1935) and still going strong. Both the Magnificat of 1989 and Nunc dimittis of 2000 offer vocal blending and spiritual feelings different from and complementary to those of Schnittke, with the lovely serenity of the later work providing an especially strong contrast with the bulk of Psalms of Repentance and a moving complement to the larger work’s final section.

     Easier to sing and more readily accessible in their emotional evocations, the dozen choral works of Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen on a new Naxos CD were all written between 2010 and 2016, but all offer a form of spiritual connection similar to that of Schnittke and Pärt. And in fact some of Arnesen’s musical inspiration stands beside Schnittke’s: Arnesen has said that one work here, Flight Song, is “the song of new life, fragile as the fall of a feather,” while Schnittke at one point said in an interview that his task as a composer was “not to think up or create music, but to listen." The implementation of these composers’ tuning-in to the world is quite differently expressed, though, notably in the way Arnesen writes particularly for sopranos in their high range – no fewer than six from the ensemble Kantorei are featured on this CD – while Schnittke tends to favor lower voices and a more strongly blended ensemble. Only five of these Arnesen pieces, all of which are led with care by Joel Rinsema, have been recorded before: the aforementioned Flight Song (2014); Even When He Is Silent (2011), using moving words that were scrawled on the wall of a concentration camp during World War II; Dormi, Jesu (2012); Cradle Hymn (2010); and The Lamb (2015), to the well-known words of William Blake. The seven world première recordings here are O Sacrum Convivium (2014); Child of Song (2014); The gift I’ll leave you (2015), commissioned by Kantorei; Making or Breaking (2015), another Kantorei commission; Pie Jesu (2013), to the familiar sacred text; Infinity (2016); and There We Shall Rest (2015). Most of the pieces are a cappella, but there is a surprise in the use of a soprano saxophone (played by John Gunther) in Making or Breaking. And there are piano parts with Flight Song, The gift I'll leave you, Cradle Hymn and Pie Jesu – although the sound quality of the recoding venue (First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver) is not as kind to the piano as it is to the chorus, whose warmth comes through particularly notably. Interestingly, pianist Alicia Rigsby also fills the role of one of the six featured sopranos – on Infinity.

     There is a soprano surprise of a different sort in the most-spiritual of the three quartets of Richard Danielpour (born 1956) on another new Naxos CD. This is Quartet No. 7, “Psalms of Solace” (2014), whose final “solemn and prayerful” movement is directly intended to portray the search for the divine after three earlier movements whose focuses are, respectively, intellect, the force of will, and romantic love. There is nothing jarring about the sound of Hila Plitmann’s voice after some initial disquiet when it first appears – just as the finale of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance achieves the strongest effect of the whole work through eschewing words, so the introduction of the human voice to supplement the sound of the Delray String Quartet takes Danielpour’s work beyond the seekings of its first three movements into a realm where, the composer suggests (just as Beethoven did in his Ninth Symphony), instrumental sounds alone are not sufficiently communicative. This quartet is the most interesting of the three on the CD – all of them world première recordings. The other two, although well-crafted in largely neo-Romantic style, and skillful in their deployment of the instruments, are all in all more ordinary. No. 5 dates to 2004 and is called “In Search of La vita nuova.” It portrays Danielpour’s long relationship with Italy and is intended to convey a sense of journey and discovery, but does so only intermittently – although the third and final movement, marked Adagio, cantabile, certainly shows the composer’s affection for the country. No. 6, from 2009, is titled “Addio,” but despite the Italian word for “goodbye,” this is not another attempted travelogue – instead, it is intended to be about family (reflected in the “family” elements of quartet playing), with moods moving from triste (first movement) to giocoso (second) to another cantabile (finale). There is some undeniable emotional resonance in the quartet writing here, but the work as a whole is on the superficial side. For a stronger feeling of meaningfulness and the attempt to reach out to find it, it is to Danielpour’s “Psalms of Solace” quartet that listeners will do better to turn.

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