July 31, 2014


Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Helen Donath, soprano; Doris Soffel, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Hans Sotin, bass; Edinburgh Festival Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti. LPO. $16.99.

A Thing Most Wonderful: Music from Lent to Easter. Alistair Reid, organ; Victoria Hoffmeister and Richard Wyton, flute; St. Cecilia Choir of Girls conducted by Jamie Hitel. MSR Classics. $12.95.

William Averitt: The Deepness of the Blue—Three Choral Cycles on Poems by Langston Hughes. Conservatory Singers conducted by Robert Bode; Lee Thompson and Melissa Loehnig, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Robert Aldridge: Parables—An Interfaith Oratorio. Monica Yunus, soprano; Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Okeli, tenor; Philip Zawisza, baritone; University of Minnesota Choruses, University Singers, Dancers of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, and University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kathy Saltzman Romey. Naxos DVD. $24.99.

     Anyone interested in hearing an approach to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis that has the sort of operatic intensity more usually heard in Verdi’s Requiem will welcome the Georg Solti performance from 1982 recorded live in London and released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label. The playing and singing here are strong and virtuosic, with the four soloists bringing tremendous intensity and very fine projection to their roles, and with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus offering outstanding and very clear vocal delivery. The palpable intensity of this reading is sustained throughout: this is a recording that never flags. At the same time, though, it never contemplates. Beethoven’s own religious ideas and ideals were unsettled and sometimes changing, and he seems to have had an overall humanistic bent grafted onto an essentially Catholic orientation. But there is no doubt that he intended the Missa Solemnis to offer the highest possible level of holiness in sound and devotional substance, and that is what is missing here. Certainly there is considerable drama in Beethoven’s setting of the Mass, but there is not only drama. Solti leaves the impression that the Missa Solemnis was conceived, first and foremost, as a dramatic work – a proposition that is arguable at best. He captures the intensity of the music thrillingly, and elicits fine playing from the orchestra to complement the excellent vocal elements; but after the performance ends, one misses a sense of uplift, of something that transcends the facile realm in which most opera dwells. This is a first-rate Missa Solemnis from its particular point of view, but the viewpoint itself is inherently flawed in the way it minimizes (if not trivializes) the sacred aspects of the music.

     The seriousness is undoubted on a new MSR Classics CD called A Thing Most Wonderful, which offers music by Bach, Handel, Pergolesi, Purcell, César Franck, John Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford and others – 17 tracks in all, all of them heartfelt and delivered devotionally by the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls from Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut, conducted by Jamie Hitel. There are nine tracks designated “Lent and Passiontide” and eight for Easter, with music of various eras juxtaposed: Stanford’s A Song of Hope is immediately followed by My Song Is Love Unknown by Malcolm Archer (born 1952), for example, and Handel’s If God Be For Us is succeeded by Lift Your Voice, Rejoicing, Mary by Thomas Foster (born 1938). The varying styles of the vocal works make for a somewhat uneasy mixture, despite the fluidity with which the chorus approaches each piece; the fact that all the music has a sacred purpose unites the recording but not the succession of works. Two of the pieces here were commissioned by Hitel from Philip Moore (born 1943): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100). Both fit well into the Easter segment of the CD, but neither shows Moore to be a composer so skilled as to deserve two entries here while Bach, Handel, Purcell and all the others receive one apiece. This CD will be of most interest to listeners intrigued by hearing the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary church music, sung by an adept and well-led girls’ choir.

     Another MSR Classics release features avowedly secular works by William Averitt (born 1948), whose three cycles based on Langston Hughes’ poetry are gathered under the umbrella title The Deepness of the Blue – which is also the title of the most-recent cycle itself, from 2012. The musical concept of these cycles is an interesting one: all are for chorus and piano four hands, scarcely a typical combination. The earliest, Afro-American Fragments, dates to 1991 and contains six songs; The Dream Keeper (2009) contains four; and the title cycle includes five. Afro-American Fragments is a stylistic mixture of jazz, ragtime and blues, arranged in three short-long movement pairs. The Dream Keeper, the most musically interesting of the three cycles, ranges from chordal and other slow passages to fast-moving ones and contains a particularly impressive setting of “As I Grew Older,” a song about how age suppresses youthful dreams that features, at the end, a strong reaffirmation of creative thinking, expectation and hope. The Deepness of the Blue tries a little too hard for deep meaning and profundity, its most impressive movement being the intense and strongly syncopated “Drum,” which sounds quite different from the rest of the cycle. Lovers of Hughes’ poetry will certainly enjoy hearing the many ways in which Averitt sets it in these cycles, and these world première recordings are impressively sung throughout, with a particularly nice solo turn by soprano Natalie Lassinger in “Song for Billie Holliday” from Afro-American Fragments. The appeal of the disc, though, is somewhat limited by the exclusive use of poetry that, while involving enough in small doses, is neither sufficiently varied nor sufficiently thoughtful to sustain Averitt’s level of attention and intensity through nearly 50 minutes of music.

     The intensity has both secular and religious elements in Robert Aldridge’s Parables, a work from 2010 in which Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein make yet another of the many recent very-well-meaning attempts by artists to use the power of performance to build bridges among the primary Abrahamic faiths. Using words from the Torah, New Testament and Koran, Garfein attempts to show the many ways in which the religions have common roots and common thoughts, with the secular intent of the work – abetted by Aldridge’s sensitively varied music – being to counter the forces that make it seem that these religions are and must be at war, both philosophically and physically. This is a piece that works particularly well on DVD: the Naxos release is not merely a visualization of a concert but a fully worked-through performance in which choreography, lighting and costume design are just as important to the overall impact as are the words and music. Stage director David Walsh and conductor Kathy Saltzman Romey offer an operatically conceived oratorio that will surely appeal to people who already believe that the major faiths can and should, even must, appreciate each other. These are the sorts of people who have car bumper stickers in which the word “coexist” is assembled from a Muslim crescent, a peace symbol, an “e” bearing male and female symbols, the Jewish star, an “i” dotted with the yin/yang symbol, an “s” with that same symbol in a larger size, and a Christian cross. Very nice, very pretty, very simplistic, and ultimately very useless – the bumper stickers, that is. There is far more substance than this to Parables, but this is nevertheless a work of supreme naïveté, a feel-good “can’t we all get along?” piece that will appeal to people who are already predisposed to accept its undoubted, underlying good intentions. It is hard to tell just how seriously Aldridge and Garfield, who previously collaborated in Elmer Gantry (2007) – a work in which the sacred and secular collide quite overtly – expect the audience to take Parables, and whether they hope that the work will in fact produce any increase in tolerance whatsoever. In the real world, after all, even the Muslim crescent does not mean the same thing to the 85% of Muslims who identify themselves as Sunni as to the 15% who are Shiite; and the Jewish star cannot even be used in international lifesaving operations in many countries in the Middle East. So this Aldridge/Garfein “interfaith oratorio,” with its accessible music, its clear verbal parallels among the three faiths from which it draws its text, and its very fine singing, dancing and stage presentation, ultimately comes across as yet another instance of preaching to the choir: it will surely please those who already agree with its precepts, and just as surely have neither meaning nor interest for those who do not.

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