July 12, 2018


Otmar Mácha: Silesian Yodel-Songs; The Replies of Silesian Songs; Moravian Folk Songs; Hejsa, Hejsa; Flows the Water; The Moravian Gate; Proverbia; Fortuna; Hymnus. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

William Bolcom: Three Cabaret Songs; David Kechley: Waking the Sparrows—Five Haiku Songs; William Neil: Out of Darkness into Light; Andrew York: Open the River; Jing Jing Luo: A Song of Unending Sorrow. Duo Sureño (Nancy King, soprano; Robert Nathanson, guitar). Ravello. $14.99.

Ingrid Stölzel: The Gorgeous Nothings; here there; Soul Journey—Three Whitman Songs; With Eyes Open; The Road Is All. Navona. $14.99.

     The splendidly controlled sound of the Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal, who has managed the group since 1977, is the main attraction of a new Navona release featuring music created or arranged by Otmar Mácha and presented in groupings reflective of the sources from which the music is drawn. The performances are mostly a cappella and reflect the skillful blending of the young voices in the choir. This is primarily a CD for people interested in smoothly vocalized but, in the main, not especially meaningful vocal material. Thus, the five Silesian Yodel Songs are simply impressions of shepherds and shepherdesses calling to each other across valleys, while The Replies of Silesian Songs, less strongly projected and more delicate in sound, paint various pastoral scenes in gentle vocal colors or retell old stories, including one about the capture of a robber and one about a sparrow marrying a cow. Occasional piano accompaniment provides additional sonic underpinning to several songs, including some of the Moravian Folk Songs that, again, are about pastoral concerns and the innocence of young love. In addition to the grouped songs, there are three individual ones offered here: Hejsa, Hejsa; Flows the Water; and The Moravian Gate. These explore pathos of several kinds with vocal sounds that are uniformly smooth and attractive. Proverbia includes three Latin proverbs, one thanking the Muse, one warning against a changeable woman and one wishing long life and prosperity. Fortuna is Latin, too, a wish for good luck in which the single word of the title is repeated dozens of times – it is the only word sung here. The most interesting work on the CD from the perspective of sound is the final one, Hymnus, which melds the choir with kettledrum and organ, instruments whose introductory material, much of it dissonant, goes on for a minute and a half before any voices enter; and when they do, their rather sweet uplift contrasts with the instrumentation and eventually pulls it into the choir’s orbit and toward an assertively positive conclusion. The CD is a specialty item, to be sure, but a very fine-sounding one that will please listeners interested in the distinctive sounds of massed girls’ voices and in the history and musical attractions of Czech folk melodies.

     The sound is mostly considerably quieter and more personal on a new Ravello release featuring Duo Sureño (Nancy King and Robert Nathanson) performing a variety of contemporary art songs for the unusual mixture of soprano and guitar. The Michael Lorimer arrangements of Three Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom (born 1938) are especially interesting, taking some of the edge away from the music and replacing it with warmth and intimacy. Waking the Sparrows by David Kechley (born 1947) is also intriguing, exploring both the lyrical and dramatic capability of voice and guitar and using haiku in their original Japanese or, in some cases, in a mixture of Japanese with English. The remaining material here is of somewhat less interest, which is unfortunate because the longest offering by far is Out of Darkness into Light by William Neil (born 1954). This is an overextended 24-minute exploration of the theme of renewal that relies heavily on digital acoustics (produced by the composer) and also includes, in addition to soprano and guitar, violin (Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi), saxophones (Laurent Estoppey), and bassoon and contrabassoon (Helena Kopchick Spencer). It is one of those works that goes out of its way to sound ultra-modern and in so doing mostly draws attention to the ways in which much contemporary music sounds a great deal like other contemporary music – the whole production is just too extended and too self-consciously redolent of the no-longer-original sounds of digital acoustics to be involving or effectively communicative. The much shorter Open the River by Andrew York (born 1958), which also includes Žeželj-Gualdi on violin, is also too self-important to put across much translatable feeling: York uses the same poem twice in different settings, structuring the presentation carefully in one of those technical arrangements that are primarily of interest to fellow composers but add little to the experience of an audience. In contrast, A Song of Unending Sorrow by Jing Jing Luo (born 1952) – which, like the Bolcom and Kechley works, uses only soprano and guitar – is lyrical, touching and moving in its presentation of the tragic story of an ancient Chinese emperor’s love for a beautiful concubine. His love was so strong that it led him to neglect affairs of state, so the army killed the concubine to force the emperor to do his duties – after which he died of a broken heart. This is a love story that speaks to today’s listeners from a time more than a millennium in the past and that crosses social and cultural boundaries, and the setting for soprano and guitar puts it across movingly and with real emotional impact.

     The two works that use voice on a new Navona CD featuring the music of Ingrid Stölzel (born 1971) also offer some well-conceived blendings of the vocal and instrumental. The Gorgeous Nothings (2016) turns fragments of uncompleted Emily Dickinson poems into a five-movement what-might-have-been mini-cycle featuring soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson accompanied by flute (Anne Gnojek), oboe (Margaret Marco), and piano (Ellen Sommer). The use of wind instruments is particularly effective in bringing out some of the poet’s not-fully-formed thoughts, with the fourth piece, “The Little Sentences,” being an especially well-conceived presentation of both musical and verbal fragmentation. Soul Journey—Three Whitman Songs (2014) is for mezzo-soprano (Phyllis Pancella) and piano (Sommer), and its three settings of poems from Leaves of Grass last significantly longer than the five songs based on Dickinson’s fragments. The piano accompaniment here tends to be spare, and the vocal settings are less involving, despite their obvious earnestness – although the second piece, “I Swear I Think,” with its lightly skipping accompaniment at the opening, is attractive. The issue here is that Stölzel is trying to communicate a weighty subject, a soul journey, but her presentation is rather straightforward and does not convey a real sense of the depth of what Whitman is trying to put across. The two vocal works on this disc are complemented by three instrumental ones that show Stölzel to have some skill at blending and contrast when the voice is not involved. Violin (Véronique Martin) and piano (Sommer) are the instruments in here there (2006; the title has no capital letters). This is a work in which the two performers seem to change places periodically in terms of which instrument leads and which follows, reflecting the notion that what is here and what is there is a matter of perspective rather than an absolute. With Eyes Open (2015) is for alto saxophone (Keith Bohm) and piano (Sommer) and is a drifting, quiet piece that could serve as background music in a nightclub. It is based on an earlier Stölzel work for flute, guitar, vibraphone and piano; in this version, the saxophone dominates and is a source, primarily, of smoothness. Also on the CD is The Road Is All (2007) for piano trio (Anne-Marie Brown, violin; Lawrence Figg, cello; Robert Pherigo, piano). The ways in which the instruments blend – or fail to do so – lie at the heart of this piece, in which the three all seem to be on different roads, or on the same road in different places or at different speeds, except when they occasionally meet and appear to be heading in the same direction, if not necessarily toward the same goal. The occasional merger of the three instrumental voices comes across as rather unexpected when it happens, as the work – which at 12 minutes goes on for some time after it has already made all its points – eventually fades out with only the piano apparently reaching journey’s end.

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