May 07, 2009


James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross; Christus Vincit; Nemo te comdemnavit; …here in hiding… The Dmitry Ensemble conducted by Graham Ross. Naxos. $8.99.

Krzysztof Penderecki: Utrenja. Iwona Hossa, soprano; Agnieszka Rehlis, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Kusiewicz, tenor; Piotr Nowacki, bass; Gennady Bezzubenkov, basso profondo; Warsaw Boys’ Choir and Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.

Kile Smith: Vespers. Piffaro (The Renaissance Band) with The Crossing Vocal Ensemble conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $16.99.

Lewis Spratlan: In Memoriam; Streaming: Quartet for Piano and Strings. Sharon Hayes and Melinda Spratlan, sopranos; Jon Humphrey, tenor; Donald Barnum and Nathaniel Watson, baritones; Amherst College Choral Society and The Valley Festival Orchestra conducted by Lewis Spratlan (In Memoriam); Yvonne Lam, violin; David Kim, viola; Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Xiang Zou, piano (Quartet). Navona. $16.99.

     It is facile but inaccurate to think that the passing of the glory days of liturgical choral music – such as Bach’s Mass in B minor and the many masses that Mozart composed brilliantly, if often without much enthusiasm – has led to a complete drought of religious choral music. In fact, numerous later composers have turned to classic religious texts, interpreting them in much more personal ways than would have been allowed in the Baroque and Classical eras (think, for example, of Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies). The reaching into the past for spiritual connections that are then interpreted in a modern context continues today, and in fact the field is a vibrant one – even if the works will not be to all tastes, either musically or spiritually.

     Among a number of interesting recent releases is Seven Last Words from the Cross by James MacMillan, written in 1993 for chorus and string orchestra on a commission from BBC Television. MacMillan’s treatment of Christ’s final utterances combines elements from his own earlier works (the piece starts with a figure from his clarinet quintet) with some very modern orchestral touches (hammer blows to open “It is finished”). Interestingly, a work whose focus is a major element of organized Christianity ends in a very personal, reflective manner, being completed by strings alone after the chorus has finished singing. This is an energetic and emotionally appealing setting of the text. And the CD is nicely filled out with three additional works that spring from similar religious impulses: Christus Vincit (1994) is an anthem for double choir based on a 12th-century text; Nemo te comdemnavit (2005) and …here in hiding… (1993) are world première recordings. The Dmitri Ensemble performs everything with warmth, vigor and understanding.

     Penderecki’s Utrenja may be somewhat harder to understand and less accessible to listeners familiar with other religious settings. It is very effective but very “Pendereckian” in its mixture of lovely, pure vocal writing with percussion-heavy orchestral effects connected with the world of electronic music. Inspired by the Orthodox liturgy of Holy Saturday, Utrenja uses two female voices in purely musical roles and three male voices to assume dramatic ones: tenor (chaplain), bass (deacon) and basso profondo (lector). Written in two parts – in 1970 and 1971 – Utrenja is in Old Slavonic, its first part called “The Entombment of Christ” and its second “The Resurrection of Christ.” Whether the frequently dramatic orchestral effects intensify or undermine the text will be a matter of opinion. Utrenja is a work that tends to grow on listeners rather than one that, like MacMillan’s Seven Last Words, will have immediate appeal. Antoni Wit has clearly taken the measure of Penderecki’s structure, leading a strong and committed performance.

     The commitment is of a different kind in the new release of Kile Smith’s Vespers, which was commissioned by Piffaro and first performed only last year. Like Penderecki, Smith mixes old elements with distinctively modern ones, but both the elements and the way they are joined are quite different. Smith incorporates Renaissance vocal techniques and fluent modern writing for wind band, with some strikingly effective choral sections (on the word “Alleluia,” for example) and a series of instrumental movements that are more than interludes – they are themselves based on religious texts, which they seem to have absorbed and then reproduced in an alternative form. An especially interesting aspect of Vespers is that Piffaro specializes in music of the 15th through 17th centuries, and brings its handling of the works of those much earlier times to Smith’s writing; while Smith, clearly sensitive to Piffaro’s usual focus, has given the band material to work with that incorporates a clean, modern sound while paying tribute to compositional techniques of the past. Neatly interrelated and interwoven, Smith’s Vespers is an emotionally and musically appealing update of some timeless religious sentiments, with the use of German text enhancing a never-quite-imitative connection to the era of Bach – for example, in “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” (“God’s only Son, for all time”).

     The tie to an earlier era is more apparent, and somewhat more exotic, in Lewis Spratlan’s In Memoriam. Despite the work’s Latin title, this four-movement piece – here in its world première recording (of a live Ravinia Festival performance) – has a Mayan rather than European focus. Spratlan, professor of music emeritus at Amherst College (where he taught from 1970 to 2006), wrote In Memoriam in 1993 to honor the victims of conquest. The five soloists, double chorus and orchestra open with “Prologue and Prophecy” and conclude with a “Prayer to the Sun” that looks to the future after the Mayans have been defeated. The work is impassioned and intense, with a strong central sociopolitical thesis (the middle movements are called “The Hero” and “Death and Lives of a Revolutionary”). Its sentiments differ from those expressed by MacMillan, Penderecki and Smith, but draw on the same themes of conflict, death and eventual resurrection (or at least survival in a different form). The Spratlan CD concludes with a fine performance of the piano quartet Streaming (2004), whose purely instrumental sound nicely complements the vocal focus of In Memoriam and provides a thoughtful conclusion to a thought-provoking disc.

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