August 21, 2014


Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song—Music of the English Renaissance and 20th Century. Yale Schola Cantorum conducted by Simon Carrington. Delos. $16.99.

My Beloved’s Voice—Sacred Songs of Love. The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge conducted by Mark Williams. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Ralf Yusuf Gawlick: Missa gentis humanæ. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Julian Wachner. Musica Omnia. $13.99.

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) and other works for orchestra and voices. Musica Omnia. $23.99 (3 CDs).

Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Man; Movie House; Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Roderick Williams, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Verdi: Lieder. Ramón Vargas, tenor; Joanna Parisi, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Capriccio. $16.99.

     Choral music is a niche product for classical-music aficionados, and religious choral music even more so – and modern choral music even more so. Yet although the result is niches within niches, there are some very fine recordings available for people whose tastes run in those directions, even if the CDs are not the sort to attract previously unconvinced listeners to the kind of music they present. Both Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song and My Beloved’s Voice, for example, combine some choral music that is very old indeed with some that is quite recent. The Yale Schola Cantorum’s performance on Delos includes the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner (1490-1545), a plainly set and for that reason emotionally effective work; the moving Te lucis ante terminum by Thomas Tallis (1503-1585); and Glorious and Powerful God and Second Evening Service by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), with Lucas Wong on organ. To the old Latin settings the CD adds The Glory and the Dream by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) – a curious and strangely effective centerpiece of the recording, using poems by William Wordsworth that celebrate nature as well as God, and do so in musical language that differs from that of the Renaissance but complements it surprisingly well. The beautifully balanced performances led by Simon Carrington make this a very engaging disc, and Thomas Murray, organist for the Bennett work, makes a noteworthy contribution to it.

     In a similar vein, but utilizing shorter pieces, the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge under Mark Williams presents 20 different works of highly varied provenance on a Signum Records release. These range from Sicut lilium by Antoine Brumel (1460-1515) and Nigra sum by Pablo Casals (1479-1528) to four pieces based on the Song of Solomon by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and Set me as a seal by Nico Muhly (born 1981). Indeed, the Song of Solomon is the underlying unifying factor for nearly all this music, whether interpreted in its original Old Testament form as a deep and highly sensual love song or, as Christians prefer, as a parable of the “wedding” of Christ and the church. The differing exegeses of the text allow for a wide variety of approaches to music based on it, and they are what Williams explores here – sometimes in highly interesting ways, sometimes in curious ones generated by the juxtaposition of music from very different times (e.g., Clemens non Papa, 16th century, followed by Louis Vierne, 20th; and Martin de Rivafrecha, 16th century, followed by one of Edvard Grieg’s Four Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies, 20th). The singing, in any case, is warm and emotionally communicative throughout the CD.

     There is warmth and beauty as well in the voices of eight members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in the Missa gentis humanæ (“Mass for the Human Race”) by Ralf Yusuf Gawlick (born 1969). Laid out like a traditional Latin Mass, the work is in fact a hybrid that mixes Mass elements with selections from the Gospel of John and poetry and prose by Virgil, Brecht, Plautus, Dostoevsky, Brecht, Sir Walter Scott and others. The result is a very unusual work indeed, celebrating within an entirely religious overall structure the things that make humans human and worth saving – by whom or what, when and under what circumstances, is another matter. Pagan, Christian and irreligious, the juxtaposed texts are intended to illuminate the many forms taken by faith throughout the ages, the intent being to unite all believers, and even unbelievers, under the grand umbrella of what it means to be human. A very ambitious piece that constantly seems ready to come apart at the seams – and that certainly shows those seams often enough – Missa gentis humanæ gets sensitive shaping and a high level of understanding from Julian Wachner on a Musica Omnia disc. But the work remains, when all is said (or sung) and done, a piece that strives mightily without ever managing to be as engaging or moving as Gawlick clearly wants it to be.

     Wachner does an equally effective conducting job in his own music – and is a fine organist in it, too. Musica Omnia’s three-CD compilation of Wachner’s works includes much that is jazzy and energetic as well as a good deal that is intended to be uplifting. This is a lot of Wachner, and as such is a release of even more limited appeal than is usual for a recording of contemporary music. In addition to Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) (2001), the recording includes Come, My Dark-Eyed One (2008); Regina Coeli (2002); Canticles (1990); Jubilate Deo (2006); Psalm Cycle I (1989) and Psalm Cycle III (2003); Blue Green Red (2014); Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances (1995); Holy, Holy, Holy (2009); Joy to the World (2004); and All Creatures of Our God and King (1992). The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers. These include NOVUS N.Y., a new-music orchestra; the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Choir; the Majestic Brass Quintet; singers Jessica Muirhead (soprano), Steven Wilson (tenor) and Christopher Burchett (bass-baritone); Stephen Burns on trumpet; Caroline Cole on harp; and Janet Yieh – as well as Wachner himself – on organ. Wachner also serves as conductor, and he certainly knows how to evoke the expressiveness of his own music. But, again, there is a lot of it here, and a certain tedium does set in as the settings progress, despite Wachner’s attempts to make the material as sonically varied as it can be – consistent with its subject matter.

     The subject matter mixes the sacred and the worldly on a new Naxos CD featuring music for baritone and full orchestra or chamber ensemble by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956). Falling Man (2009-10) is a dramatic scena based on Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel; here there is an attempt to find meaning in an ultimately meaningless act of vicious mass murder, with Fuchs using excerpts from DeLillo’s prose to try – as have many others – to extract something of value from an act of war perpetrated by determined killers. Roderick Williams’ singing is effective – not only here but also throughout the disc – but the subject matter has been handled so often, with much the same intent, that the work is less emotionally potent than Fuchs intends. Movie House (2007) is something quite different: a setting of seven poems by John Updike, and an altogether lighter and less-fraught work. At more than half an hour, it goes on rather too long for the quality of its material, although it does contain some well-chosen and well-set words. More moving and thoughtful, and ultimately more meaningful even than Falling Man, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1977), in which Fuchs sets four poems by William Blake – whose strange, sometimes mystical sensibility stays with the listener far more tellingly than does the much more straightforward and self-consciously emotive work of DeLillo and Updike. Fuchs’ setting does not compare to the far more extensive and deeper one of William Bolcom – one of the genuine masterpieces of 20th-century music. But Fuchs’ handling of the material is careful, involving and knowing, and shows his attraction to and understanding of Blake’s unusual, sometimes difficult-to-fathom visions. JoAnn Falletta leads the London Symphony Orchestra with sure-handedness and a clear comprehension of the music, giving Fuchs’ works plenty of opportunities to connect with listeners and move them.

     Vocal connection with the audience – as viscerally as possible – is what the operas of Verdi are all about. Even Verdi operatic excerpts can make a strong emotional connection with listeners, which is why there are so many CDs of them. But the new Capriccio disc featuring tenor Ramón Vargas is not just another one of these. Vargas here presents a side of Verdi that is almost as unfamiliar as his chamber music: his songs. These are works in which the opera composer experimented with the emotions he wanted to evoke and the music in which he wanted to cloak those feelings. Like the sketches of a painter, the songs of Verdi are simpler and often more-forthright, more-raw visions of what he would later do in his opera arias and ensembles. They are pale by comparison with his theatrical works for voice and orchestra, and will not be particularly gripping even for most Verdi fans; but they do provide insights into the way Verdi used music and words to characterize particular individuals and to bring forth the emotional expressions that he wanted to convey. Vargas here offers two sets of Romances, with six songs in each, plus individual tracks both secular and sacred. On the worldly side are L’esule, La seduzione, Il poveretto and Stornello; on the religious one are Tantum ergo and Ave Maria. Ably accompanied by pianist Charles Spencer on all the songs and by soprano Joanna Parisi on a few of them, Vargas evokes and emotes words by St. Thomas Aquinas, Goethe (via Luigi Balestra), poet and librettist Andrea Maffei, and others, showing that although Verdi was scarcely an expert in lieder, he was quite capable of utilizing the form of the song to explore a variety of thoughts and feelings – and later expand upon that form to produce arias with far stronger emotive qualities. Fine singing and unusual repertoire combine to make this disc an intriguing one, albeit for a decidedly limited audience.

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