March 19, 2015


Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Phoenix Chorale and Kansas City Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy. Chandos. $19.99.

English Hymn Anthems. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Choir of King’s College. $14.99 (SACD).

Poulenc: Mass in G; Sept Chansons; Four Motets for the Season of Lent; Four Motets for the Season of Christmas. Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $12.99.

Robert Paterson: Eternal Reflections; Choral Suite from “A New Earth”; Lux Aeterna; The Essence of Gravity; Snow Day; Did You Hear?; Life Is but a Dream; A Dream within a Dream. Musica Sacra conducted by Kent Tritle. AMR (American Modern Recordings). $16.99.

A Knight’s Progress. Choir of the Temple Church conducted by Roger Sayer. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Derek Charke: Tundra Songs. Tanya Yagaq, Inuit throat singer; Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello). Centrediscs. $16.99.

The Flaming Fire: Mary Queen of Scots and Her World. Roland Angel, tenor and countertenor; Dongsok Shin, virginal; Parthenia (Beverly Au, bass viol; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor viol; Rosamund Morley, treble viol; Lisa Terry, bass viol). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Uncharted: A Viola da Gamba Adventure. Gerald Trimble, bass viola da gamba, viola d’amore, quinton de viole, pardessus de viole, five-string fretted bass violin, vocals; Webster Williams, six-string bass viola da gamba; Eliot Wadopian, double bass; River Guerguerian, percussion; Juan Camillo Reyes, palmas. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The notion that “everything old is new again” is scarcely a new one, but the cliché gains new meaning from a spate of recent releases in which past and present merge in some intriguing ways. A cappella singing, for example, is among the oldest forms of Western music, and has often been deemed more liturgically correct than music that includes instruments. Indeed, in composing his All-Night Vigil, Rachmaninoff took to heart what was at the time (1915) a Russian Orthodox Church proscription against the use of instruments in sacred music. Sometimes incorrectly called Vespers – only the first six of its 15 movements are settings of texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers – All-Night Vigil was one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite pieces, and he asked that the fifth movement be sung at his funeral. The work is written in three different styles of chant, and depends heavily on the quality of the very low bass voices for which Rachmaninoff wrote the foundational parts. Those voices on the new Chandos recording featuring the Phoenix Chorale and Kansas City Chorale under Charles Bruffy are neither as deep nor as resonant as some heard in earlier recordings, including the very first, made in 1965 under Alexander Sveshnikov. But the singers here are involved with the music and expressive, and indeed the expressiveness of the entire ensemble is what makes this recording successful. The harmonization is particularly good here – Rachmaninoff creates up to eight-part harmony and, in one section, 11-part – and the voices interweave with strength and emotional commitment. Strictly speaking, this is not a religious “passion,” for although it focuses largely on Jesus and eventually proclaims his triumphant resurrection, it does not dwell on his last hours and martyrdom. But the work has plenty of passion in the “intensity” sense, and is stylishly delivered in this recording, with a fine sense of choral balance and emotional commitment.

     Rachmaninoff’s work, being a unified whole, contrasts with the dozen individual pieces performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge on a new SACD  release on the group’s own label. The composers heard here are fixtures in Anglican worship, and some are quite well-known outside that sphere, although others are not. They include Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, Edward Bairstow, Percy Whitlock, Henry Walford Davies, William Harris, George Dyson and Charles Wood. Vaughan Williams and Parry are represented here by two works apiece, each of the others by a single one. All this music is used in regular Evensong services, and all of it recalls a time – principally the late 19th century and early 20th – when anthems based on or including hymn tunes were particularly popular. The use of well-known hymns constituted a kind of musical call to prayer, being designed to bring in the public through familiar, often-heard music that had been incorporated into creations for liturgical purposes. In any case, whatever the motivation was for producing these works, they sound polished, elegant and meaningful in these performances, with the choir’s smooth and well-balanced sound managed very ably by Stephen Cleobury, and with contributions by organists Parker Ramsay and Douglas Tang adding to the effectiveness of the singing. There is also some fine trumpet playing by Alison Balsom in Vaughan Williams’ Lord, Thou has been our refuge. This piece is a highlight of the recording; among other high points are Parry’s broadly conceived Hear my words, ye people and Ireland’s Vexilla Regis. The performances do much to turn listeners’ attention to the concept of the hymn-anthem, a form that is now little known and is something of a musical and spiritual byway, but that those interested in sacred music – and in some less-often-heard works by some very substantial British composers – will find involving and highly intriguing.

     Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil is a Russian Orthodox work, and the hymn-anthems sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge are in the Anglican tradition, but Roman Catholic choral music is even older, and it is Catholic teachings and beliefs on which Poulenc drew for the choral pieces offered on a new Naxos CD. Poulenc was raised Catholic, but his father’s death led him to abandon the faith in 1917 – only to return to the church two decades later, after the death of his friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. That return brought with it a decision to compose, in his father’s memory, a mass – the Mass in G (1937) that is heard here in a performance by the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison. The work is powerful and has a sound that is very much of its time, with pervasive tonal ambiguity that seems to reflect Poulenc’s shifting moods as he contemplates the memory of his father and his own return to the fold of Catholicism. The occasional near-playful choral writing is at odds with the overall traditional and intense seriousness of the text, but makes perfect sense in the context of Poulenc’s own compositional development. The Mass in G was written just a year after the Sept Chansons, which show that development more clearly: the songs are set to surrealist texts and seem to meander in and out of everyday life – although they are not as pointed as, for example, Walton’s Façade, originally written earlier (1922) but revised later (1947-48). Nor do the Sept Chansons have the religious orientation of the Mass in G or of the near-contemporaneous Four Motets for the Season of Lent (1938-39) or much later Four Motets for the Season of Christmas (1952). Both sets of motets use a deliberately archaic form to communicate a mixture of spiritual fervor and strong individual emotion – and those elements are well brought out by the performers here. The CD as a whole offers a perspective on 20th-century choral music that complements the one offered by the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil and shows the ways in which recent choral music is both beholden to the past and a step beyond it.

     Even-more-recent choral works, such as those of Robert Paterson on a new CD from AMR, continue to show a strong sense of the past – combined with an understanding of the ways in which choral music can reflect contemporary concerns. Under its music director, Kent Tritle, the choral group Musica Sacra delves into both individual, self-contained Paterson pieces and ones that collectively make up three choral song cycles. Those three are Eternal Reflections, a generally sober and atmospheric three-movement setting of words by Czeslaw Milosz, Mary E. Frye and Paul Lawrence Dunbar; the intense Choral Suite from “A New Earth,” whose four movements seek to explore the very modern concern of climate change in a context of high emotion; and the generally more upbeat The Essence of Gravity, with four movements tackling subjects both serious (“Echoes of War”) and fraught with modernity (“Machines”). Also on the CD is Paterson’s moving, although rather conventional, setting of Lux Aeterna, along with two works that reflect the worries of modern young people’s lives (Did You Hear? – about rumors and gossip) and some unanticipated joys for any age group (Snow Day, which revels in an unexpected day off). Most interesting of all here is the juxtaposition of two “dream” settings: Life Is but a Dream, which is neither more nor less than an exploration of the recurrent words from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and A Dream within a Dream, a far more parlous work that aptly sets a strange, near-mystical poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The performers here are adept at the quicksilver mood changes of these pieces, and listeners intrigued by the notion of modern compositions for a very old form of ensemble will find the CD quite pleasurable.

     The ways in which modern choral pieces drawn on older ones and are differentiated from them are particularly clear on a Signum Classics CD that juxtaposes the two. Entitled A Knight’s Progress, the disc includes music by three of the composers also heard in performances by the Choir of King’s College: Vaughan Williams, Parry and Bairstow. In addition, it includes works  by two other major British composers of the recent past, William Walton and John Tavener. Complementing these pieces, which have both sacred and secular elements, are a much older work, Haydn’s Te Deum in C, and a very recent one, Nico Muhly’s Our present charter, here receiving its world première recording. One thing this disc shows is that a skilled choral group – and the Choir of the Temple Church is certainly one such – can adeptly handle music of all eras in a way that sounds idiomatic and that communicates composers’ intentions with skill and sensitivity. Another matter clarified by this disc is that effective choral music, both older and contemporary, uses voices in ways that blend multiple singers while allowing individual ones to stand out from time to time in order to make a composer’s points. Roger Sayer’s conducting makes this very clear indeed. And Greg Morris’ organ performance underlines the continuing importance of this instrument to a great many choral works from a variety of time periods. As for the music itself, Muhly’s four-movement work is intended as the centerpiece here. It was commissioned by this choir for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215 by King John. The movements mix sacred and secular concerns: “First,” “Thy Kingdom Come, O God,” “The Beatitudes,” and “Nullus Liber Homo Capiatur” (which translates as “no free man shall be seized,” an important Magna Carta provision). The piece is effective enough, by turns forthright and reverential, although the music lacks  the power and devotional solemnity of Haydn’s, and for that matter of Walton’s The Twelve and Vaughan Williams’ Valiant-for-Truth. Still, Muhly is in impressive company here, and holds his place rather well. Parry’s I was glad opens the CD; Tavener’s brief Mother of God, here I stand provides an effective juxtaposition with Muhly’s work; and Barstow’s Blessed City, heavenly Salem offers an appropriately solemn approach to its material. The Choir of the Temple Church provides further evidence, if any is needed, of the skill with which the best British vocal ensembles can handle music of many types and from many time periods.

     Of course, choral music is scarcely the only vocal form to have developed through the years while still retaining many of its traditions. Much less familiar to most listeners is the distinctly odd-sounding (to ears accustomed to traditional Western music) practice of Inuit throat singing, which is heard in what is presumably authentic style on a new Centrediscs recording aptly entitled Tundra Songs. The singer here, Tanya Tagaq, presents sounds that are largely guttural and seem to trace back to a much, much earlier age of humanity. She offers the sounds in the context of works by Derek Charke, with the Kronos Quartet providing instrumental accompaniment that is certainly appropriate but that takes a back seat to Tagaq’s vocalizing almost throughout the CD. There is one complete work here, Cercle du Nord III, and there are four selections from a piece called 22 Inuit Throat Song Games. The four are called Dogs, Lullaby, Throat Song and Song of a Name (for a boy). All the music sounds vaguely (and sometimes not so vaguely) ritualistic, and all of it seems to call on the vast open spaces of the Arctic tundra for its effect. Much of the time, the sounds made by Tagaq are not particularly pleasant ones, and they are sounds rather than what would usually be called music – but in blurring the distinction between music and noise, they open listeners’ ears in a way analogous to (although quite different from) the way John Cage opened them by similarly exploring the bounds of what is usually deemed musical and not musical. It is hard to see how this disc will achieve wide circulation – even at a mere 48 minutes, there is a lot of material to absorb and digest here, and the sonic experience tends to wear thin after a while – but it will certainly appeal to anyone seeking entry to an entirely new (to most people) aural world that is, at the same time, very old indeed.

     The world explored on a new MSR Classics release called The Flaming Fire is, loosely, that of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), who is best known for her conflicts with Queen Elizabeth, which resulted in Mary’s death and posthumous triumph – her son was James VI of Scotland and James I of England, ruling the combined kingdom after Elizabeth died childless. This CD approaches Mary’s era from a nonpolitical angle: it was the time of the Reformed Church in Scotland, whose adherents, much like the better-known Puritans, forbade almost all music and deemed it devilish, condemning everything from dancing to church organs. Indeed, all printing of secular music was banned in Scotland for a century, from 1560 to 1660, and material from that age is therefore difficult to come by and very rarely heard. The 27 tracks on this CD, most of them very short indeed, include quite a number of anonymous pieces as well as a few whose composers are known: John Black, James Lauder, David Peebles, Robert Johnson, William Byrd (one of the two best-known composers on the disc), Thomas Tallis (the other one), and several more. There is scarcely a focus of any kind on any specific composer: Byrd, for example, is represented by a single two-minute work, Tallis by a single three-minute one. And there is little direct focus on the doomed queen, except in a piece called Lament of Mary Queen of Scots, with words by Robert Burns. What is offered here, in historically informed and very well-played and well-sung performances, is a potpourri of music of the 16th and early 17th centuries, loosely correlated with Mary’s lifetime and the events after it, and offered for the delectation of listeners enamored of this historical period and the vocal and instrumental sounds it produced.

     Another MSR Classics release, this one featuring Gerald Trimble on a variety of very old and/or old-fashioned string instruments, offers a smattering of similar-era material – which Trimble combines with forays into Celtic and Eastern music and works ranging from the Baroque to the Jazz Age. This CD, called Uncharted: A Viola da Gamba Adventure, will be even more a matter of taste than similar forays into multiple musical forms and backgrounds. It is very difficult to get a handle on anything that unites the disc’s 14 tracks, except for Trimble’s performances – but even they, occurring as they do on a number of different instruments, bespeak a commitment to variety rather than any particular unifying factor. Indeed, this is less a “viola d gamba adventure” than a “viola da gamba and other instruments adventure,” and its adventurousness takes listeners into improvisational territory as well as the realms of classical forms (Greensleeves to a Ground), ballads (The Duke of Norfolk or St. Paul’s Steeple), nationalistic folk tunes (MacKenzie’s Farewell), Arab music (Hikaz Taksim), and much more. The possibility of enjoying a particular track does not predict whether one will enjoy the next, and one’s interest in an individual instrument that Trimble plays does not guarantee equal interest in another one. Certainly this disc is a showcase for Trimble and an opportunity to hear a multiplicity of instruments and musical styles and traditions, all gathered in a sort of mash-up in which the focus, sound and style change every five minutes or less. The disc may be exhilarating for some, unsettling for others, wide-ranging for a certain number of people, stretched too far for others. It is not exactly a love-it-or-hate it release; it is more of a love-parts-of-it-or-hate-parts-of-it CD, on which it is difficult to get an auditory or emotional handle. Its territory is not so much uncharted as it is charted in multiple ways that seem mutually exclusive but that in fact all flow from Trimble’s esthetic – in which, however, one must share wholeheartedly in order to enjoy the recording.

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