October 02, 2014


Mozart: Requiem. Sandrine Piau, soprano; Sara Mingardo, contralto; Werner Güra, tenor; Christopher Purves, bass-baritone; Accentus and Insula Orchestra conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Naïve. $16.99.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Cantaloupe Music. $19.99 (CD+DVD).

Dreams and Prayers: Music of Hildegard von Bingen, Mehmet Ali Sanhkol, Osvaldo Golijov and Beethoven. A Far Cry; David Krakauer, clarinet. Crier Records. $16.99.

Reincarnations: A Century of American Choral Music. Seraphic Fire conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. Seraphic Fire Media. $16.99.

Vienna at the Turn of the 20th Century: Music of Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss Jr. and George Gershwin. Renée Fleming, soprano; Maciej Pikulski, piano. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     The extraordinary beauty, both musical and spiritual, of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, is never more apparent than when it is compared and contrasted with all the well-intentioned but comparatively vapid expressions of religious and spiritual meaning by lesser composers. Mozart’s music transcends its formulaic text, transcends the completions by Süssmayr and others, transcends even the inadequacy of some performances and performers, transporting listeners – be they traditionally religious or not – to a higher state of consciousness, one in which music itself attains a meaningfulness and supremacy that the orthodox religious of all traditional faiths ascribe only to their version of God. It is commonplace to refer to Mozart’s music as “sublime,” but well-nigh inevitable to do so: as dry ice sublimates directly from a solid to a gaseous state, so Mozart’s Requiem transforms from notes on a page directly to a supreme experience of wonder, longing and peace. It is a remarkable work that has had the good fortune to receive a large number of very fine recent performances, including the new Naïve recording featuring Accentus, the chamber choir founded in 1992 by Laurence Equilbey, along with the Insula Orchestra. Excellent balance between the choir and instruments is a hallmark of this performance, as is the considerable attention Equilbey pays to the relative prominence of the soloists – all of whom are quite good – and the chorus as a whole. This is a well-paced performance and one that is sensitive both to period style and to the emotional communication of the music. It breaks no new interpretative ground, but Equilbey’s willingness to let the music flow naturally within and among the sections lends this Requiem a sense of unity, making it emotionally trenchant even in the sections that Mozart himself did not live to complete.

     “Unity” is what John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean is all about, and this work, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, certainly delivers plenty of oceanic swells, throbs, waves and musical tides. The problem is that it delivers about 20 minutes of them, but lasts twice that long. Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and performed by that ensemble under Ludovic Morlot on a new Cantaloupe Music CD, Become Ocean hits all the right political notes to be attractive to “right-thinking” people on the Pulitzer committee and elsewhere. It is about combinatoriality, environmental destruction, the rise of life from the ocean and the possibility that global warming will return life to the sea. It is about inclusiveness, balance and unending motion, a sense of something beyond each individual listener and beyond the place where each person hears the work. It is also about twice as long as it should be to maximize its effects. Swells and arpeggios take listeners only so far; three evenly spaced crescendos, akin to tidal waves, are meaningful as all get-out but also extremely manipulative and predictable; even the work’s title – taken from a John Cage comment on the music of Lou Harrison, “Listening to it we become ocean” – is intended to satisfy the cognoscenti that this is music of depth (indeed, oceanic depth) and abyssal meaning. Adams does have interesting ideas here, but he spins them out at too-great length for maximum effectiveness, and all the sociopolitical gloss gets in the way of the music as music in exactly the way that does not occur in Mozart’s Requiem. Although Become Ocean deserves a (+++) rating for its attractive and well-constructed elements, it is not a work to which listeners are likely to return repeatedly – it says what it wants to say, again and again, and when it is over, that is it. Not so Mozart, and not so music that is great rather than skillfully designed to reflect contemporary sensibilities.

     The spiritual and emotional connection is more intense in some of the music performed by the conductorless Boston-based string ensemble A Far Cry on a new recording on its own label. The CD is ambitious on many levels, from the juxtaposition of the music to the time span of the works to the sheer audacity of making string-orchestra arrangements of pieces by Beethoven and Hildegard von Bingen. To a considerable extent, the gambles pay off, as there is genuineness and emotive power in the arrangements, which act as bookends for two less-compelling modern works. The soaring lines of von Bingen are quite different in sound and effect from the intricate Lydian-mode middle movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 – but the two composers, separated in time by more than 600 years, prove to have unexpected affinities in their search for connection with a higher power, their reaching-out through music to a force beyond themselves with the intention not to explicate but to thank and pay tribute. A Far Cry plays both these works with skill and subtlety, and the musicians bring the same characteristics to Vecd by Mehmet Ali Sanhkol (born 1974) and The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960). The new music, though, does not repay listeners in the same way or to the same extent as the old. The seeking of von Bingen and Beethoven is expressed without the need for explanatory words, but Sanhkol and Golijov produce works that must be intellectually understood for their full effect – the music, on its own, does not have anything like the impact of the music when understood in the way the composers wish it to be comprehended. The title of Sahnkol’s work means “ecstasy” in Arabic, and this is a mystic rapture of the kind sought in Sufi ceremonies, an understanding of which is necessary for full appreciation of the music – which otherwise does not enrapture. Its repeated rhythmic phrases, derived from singing by dervishes, are an essential building block, but their meaning is unclear without Sahnkol’s explanation, and they are not especially effective as pure music. Golijov’s work requires even more pre-discussion. It is tied into a kabbalist rabbi believed to have lived from 1160 to 1235 – a time not too distant from that of von Bingen (1098-1179) but worlds away in sensibility and thought. Golijov imagines the three movements of his work connected to three languages spoken by Jews in their long history: Aramaic, Yiddish and sacred Hebrew. And he ties the movements, which feature clarinetist David Krakauer, to Isaac the Blind’s mystic belief that Hebrew letters, properly combined, produce all things and events in the universe. As a discussion of his organizational principles, what Golijov says makes sense; but his work itself does not communicate any images associated with those principles particularly well. Indeed, the three movements, which might be expected to have different rhythms and accents in line with the composer’s notion of their being associated with three different languages, never come across as differentiated in that way. The music is well-constructed but not particularly communicative of its underlying reasons for being; nor does it express itself very effectively as pure music, despite the fine performance it receives here. As a whole, this is a (+++) CD with some elements that are fascinating, but even more that fall short of their emotive goals.

     One way to connect with an audience spiritually – or for communicating any kind of emotion – is through use of the human voice, as both von Bingen and Beethoven, not to mention Mozart, knew well. The (+++) CD called Reincarnations, performed by the ensemble Seraphic Fire and released on its own label, offers a dozen choral works, 11 by modern American composers and one very brief anonymous one from the 1893 Mount Lebanon Hymnal. The music here, both sacred and secular, is generally straightforward in expression, the words clear and unambiguous in meaning, the intended emotional content forthright. Among the religious texts are Followers of the Lamb, a Shaker tune arranged by Philip R. Dietterich (born 1931); Death and Resurrection from the Valley of Delight by Paul Crabtree (born 1960); and the three Reincarnations, Op. 16 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Complementing and contrasting with the sacred choruses are ones celebrating Earth and nature, among them As There Are Flowers by Colin Britt (born 1985); Earth Song by Frank Ticheli (born 1958); and the five Mid-Winter Songs by Morten Lauridsen (born 1943). Even the newest works here partake largely of old-fashioned harmony and tonic centers, and the sentiments expressed are, if not eternal, certainly ones of long standing and ones that frequently emerge in folk songs and art songs alike. The disparate topics of the choruses do not always work very well in juxtaposition, and the varying styles of the composers make this disc something of a grab-bag, more interesting for its consistently fine singing than for any specific music that is sung. It will be of interest primarily to choral members and those interested in how modern American composers handle choral forces.

     Sometimes there is more warmth and beauty, more spirituality, communicated by a single performer than by a whole group, and that is the case with an Arthaus Musik DVD featuring Renée Fleming in a recital entitled Vienna at the Turn of the 20th Century. Fleming has a marvelous voice, supple, even and expressive throughout all its registers, and she is simply the best performer singing today in certain works, such as Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Most of the music on this DVD, though, is somewhat lighter than that – including the one Richard Strauss work here, Zueignung (“Dedication”). Hugo Wolf’s songs to Goethe texts, and Mahler’s five Rückert songs, are here neatly dovetailed with Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Jane Grey and Zemlinsky’s set of five songs to poems by Richard Demel. There are also seven Korngold songs here – not a cycle, but a set of contrasting vocal offerings including Frag mich oft from Walzer aus Wien and Marietta’s Song from Die tote Stadt. And to lighten things up at the recital’s conclusion, Fleming sings a Dimitri Tiomkin arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s I’m in Love with Vienna and Gershwin’s thoroughly non-Viennese but somehow appropriate Summertime. The recital is a generous length – 88 minutes – and Fleming’s vocalizing is exemplary throughout; Maciej Pikulski provides appropriate piano accompaniment that complements Fleming without ever coming close to upstaging her. The DVD, however, gets a (+++) rating because it is a DVD: seeing a two-person recital for an hour and a half takes something away from the music and the performance – the opposite of what occurs when one attends a live performance and feels the connection between performers and audience. The music is well-chosen and clearly reflects Fleming’s personal tastes, and video director Brian Large does what can be done to keep the visual elements as interesting as possible. But this is a recording that comes across more effectively when heard with one’s eyes closed, allowing Fleming’s wonderful voice to have its full effect. Presented in a visual format, it is less effective than it would be without visuals.

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