May 26, 2016
(++++) VOCAL DELIGHTS, SECULAR AND SACRED
Johann Strauss Jr.: Der Zigeunerbaron. Nikolai Schukoff, Claudia Barainsky, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Khatuna Mikaberidze, Heinz Zednik, Markus Brück, Jasmina Sakr, Paul Kaufmann, Renate Pirschneider; NDR Choir and NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Antonio Lotti: Missa Sancti Christophori; Miserere in C minor; Credo in G minor; Dixit Dominus in G minor. The Syred Consort and Orchestra of St. Paul’s conducted by Ben Palmer. Delphian. $16.99.
Randall Thompson: Requiem. The Philadelphia Singers conducted by David Hayes. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: Psalmfest (1993); This is the day (2011); Lord, Thou has been our refuge (2008); Psalm 150 (2002). Elizabeth Cragg, soprano; Pascal Charbonneau, tenor; Mike Allen, trumpet; Tom Winpenny, organ; St. Albans Cathedral Choir, Abbey Girls Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Lucas. Naxos. $12.99.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Rubáiyát (2015); Into the Heart of Light (Canto V) (2012); Balada (2014); Four Songs from the Opera “Rasputin” (2012). Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Mika Pohjonen, tenor; Helsinki Music Centre Choir; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.
The other Johann Strauss Jr. operetta that merits more than occasional performance – other than Die Fledermaus, that is – is Der Zigeunerbaron, an absurdly plotted and amazingly tuneful mishmash of some of the themes that Offenbach handled much more pointedly and amusingly in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein nearly two decades earlier. Strauss had exasperatingly poor luck with libretti; even Die Fledermaus has a third act that is more stage play and melodrama than operetta – there is little music in it. But listeners who are willing simply to sit back and revel in the composer’s almost endless tunefulness will find much to enjoy in PentaTone’s excellent recording of Der Zigeunerbaron, which does the work to a fine turn and manages to produce convincing characterizations of a number of less-than-admirable characters. Like Die Fledermaus, a domestic drama whose protagonists include a revenge-seeker, an utterly bored Russian prince and a mutually faithless middle-class husband and wife, Der Zigeunerbaron has no really heroic characters. Sándor Barinkay (Nikolai Schukoff), the nobleman of the title – not a real nobleman in the work’s context, since he is merely baron of the Gypsies – makes a ridiculously abrupt decision to wed a woman he has never seen, the daughter of his neighbor, a rich but illiterate and self-important pig farmer, Kálmán Zsupán (Jochen Schmeckenbecher). The daughter, Arsena (Jasmina Sakr), is in love with someone else, a nonentity named Ottokar (Paul Kaufmann),and when Barinkay discovers this, he flies into a rage and abruptly gives his affections to the Gypsy girl Saffi (Claudia Barainsky). Saffi is the sole human-seeming character in the whole work – but when it turns out she is of royal blood, Barinkay deserts her and goes off to war because he does not deserve her, even though he has already slept with her and (in the work’s most affecting scene) describes having been “married” to her by the forces of nature. The men march off to war and, when they return, Barinkay is made a real baron and reunited with Saffi, and arranges for Ottokar and Arsena to wed as well. Hence the happy, if ridiculous, ending. Hungarian-style music permeates Der Zigeunerbaron, and Strauss handles it expertly, although the Zigeunerlied here is curiously bloodless (when compared with, for example, Rosalinde’s faux Hungarian aria in Die Fledermaus). Barinkay’s entry couplet song is hilarious, however, and the second-act assertion of being married by nature – which Barinkay and Saffi deliver together – is genuinely magical. In the third act, the introductory waltz is wonderfully tuneful, and Zsupán’s bragging about his battlefield exploits, which consist mostly of stealing dead enemies’ belongings, is amusing in black-humor manner. The performers, including chorus and orchestra, do an absolutely first-rate job with this music, and Lawrence Foster paces the proceedings wonderfully and even assumes the small role of the Herald – who announces that the war, which takes place offstage, is over – himself. The underlying, if parodied, militaristic adventuring of Der Zigeunerbaron does not wear very well, and the typecast characters, Saffi excepted, generate little warmth or sympathy. But this excellent live recording captures all the high points of the work and glosses over the lesser ones to good effect. And PentaTone deserves special credit not only for its usual outstanding sound but also for a picture-perfect presentation of the two-CD set, with complete German-and-English libretto and helpful but not overdone booklet notes. The whole package is a thoroughly winning one.
The contrast between the froth of Der Zigeunerbaron and the seriousness of the music of Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) could not be greater. Lotti is known nowadays only for a single work, an eight-part setting of the Crucifixus. This is a beautifully balanced, elegant and emotive handling of the text, certainly worthy of the frequency with which it is performed. But it lasts less than four minutes and is in fact just one part of Lotti’s half-hour Missa Sancti Christophori – whose totality, as heard on a new Delphian CD featuring the Syred Consort and Orchestra of St. Paul’s under Ben Palmer, is even more impressive and shows Lotti to be in the first rank of Baroque liturgical composers. And he is more than that, as the other works on this recording show: Lotti wrote mostly for Venice’s Basilica of San Marco at a time when extravagance in sacred music was encouraged, and he took to the tenor of the times wholeheartedly. His forces are large, often surprisingly so, and the scale of his music surpasses what listeners will expect from having heard other Baroque church works. Furthermore, Lotti’s style hints at what is to come after the Baroque era becomes the Classical: there is true galant music here, not pervasively but from time to time, and there is a level of emotional involvement – reflected in often-daring harmonies – that looks ahead by several decades. The preponderance of minor keys is no mere affectation, either: Lotti uses them to deepen the emotional connection of the words with listeners, and he likewise employs sometimes-daring harmonies to highlight elements of the texts in ways that go well beyond what most listeners familiar with Baroque church works will expect. The excellently balanced vocal and instrumental ensembles blend beautifully in this recording, where what comes through is both the sincerity of the religious messages of the music and the determination of Lotti to deliver those messages using harmonic and coloristic techniques that push the bounds of what was generally accepted in his time.
In our own time, pretty much anything that composers choose to do to emphasize sacred messages can be acceptable, but that does not prevent certain works from standing out in their own way. One such is the 1958 Requiem by Randall Thompson (1899-1984). Thompson is well-known to amateur as well as professional choirs, and his choral music is often performed – but the Requiem is not, and the new Naxos CD featuring the Philadelphia Singers under David Hayes is its world première recording. The reason for this work’s neglect is apparent throughout. Running nearly an hour and requiring two a cappella choirs with the ability to handle music of considerable intricacy, the Requiem opens in anguish and preserves intense emotion all the way through – dispensing with the traditional Latin Requiem Mass and instead using strung-together texts from various books of the Bible, grouped by Thompson into five sections called “Lamentations,” “The Triumph of Faith,” “The Call to Song,” “The Garment of Praise,” and “The Leave-taking.” Passing references to the works of earlier composers abound here, but there is nothing overtly imitative in what Thompson has done. Instead, references to Bach in “Lamentations,” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in “The Call to Song,” Handel in “The Garment of Praise,” and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (in mood, not any specific music) at the end of “The Leave-taking” all serve to place Thompson’s Requiem firmly in line with the works of earlier composers – without ever making it seem beholden to the past. Indeed, Thompson sometimes reaches back to even before the age of Antonio Lotti, using textual repetition in a way that harks back to Gregorian chant. This Requiem is a work of considerable substance, performed sensitively and even elegantly by singers and a conductor who spent two years preparing the full work for performance and this recording. Their care shows in the meticulous attention to detail that is evident all through a piece that is deeply involving from start to finish.
John Rutter’s liturgical works get performances of equally high quality on another Naxos CD, with the longest piece here by far, Psalmfest, being another world première recording. Like many earlier composers, Rutter (born 1945) was inspired by the psalms of David to create music expressing a wide array of emotions through a great variety of vocal and instrumental combinations. Rutter sets nine texts in Psalmfest: the first three are for chorus and orchestra, the fourth adding solo soprano and tenor, the fifth being for chorus only, the sixth again for chorus and orchestra with solo soprano and tenor, the seventh for chorus and orchestra, the eighth for soprano and tenor with orchestra (but without chorus), the ninth for chorus and orchestra. Rutter has striven mightily and for the most part successfully to match the performing forces to the emotional content of the words, which are taken, respectively, from Psalms 100, 121, 146, 23 (the ubiquitous “The Lord Is My Shepherd”), 96, 27, 47, 84 and 148. Rutter is particularly effective in evoking the contrasting emotions of, for example, Psalms 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes”) and 47 (“O clap your hands”). Andrew Lucas leads the performers, vocal and orchestral alike, with determination, a fine sense of pace, and sensitive awareness of Rutter’s orchestral colorations and rhythmic contrasts. And the disc is filled out with material that, far from being “filler,” further shows Rutter’s skill in handling psalm settings for special occasions. This is the day, for chorus and orchestra, was heard worldwide: it was composed by Rutter for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Lord, Thou has been our refuge (for chorus, trumpet and organ) and Psalm 150 (for chorus, organ and orchestra), both occasional works as well, are equally effective in bringing forth their texts clearly while reflecting the emotional underpinning of the words through Rutter’s skillful vocal settings.
Finland’s greatest living composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928), also shows considerable skill and variety in the vocal works collected on a new Ondine CD. Rautavaara is more inclined to mysticism than to traditional religion such as the Psalms, and this CD shows him using his skill in the service of purely secular material as well as some with spiritual implications and leanings. Here too are world première recordings – of all four works on the disc. Rubáiyát, written for Gerald Finley, who performs it here, is a nine-movement song cycle that draws on the poetry of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) – the best-known lines of which are, in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, “A book of verses underneath the bough,/ A jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou/ Beside me singing in the wilderness—/ oh wilderness were paradise enow!” This is elegant love poetry, and Rautavaara’s setting of it is by turns emotive, sensuous and rather matter-of-fact. This voice-and-orchestra piece is followed by one written purely for strings: Into the Heart of Light (Canto V), which, as the title indicates, is the fifth in a series of works for string orchestra that Rautavaara has been writing since the 1960s. He intends each to represent his current compositional techniques and inclinations, which nowadays mix varying amounts of contemporary compositional techniques with the Romanticism that dominated in Rautavaara’s work for a time and to which he often returns. The other two pieces here are again in the voice-and-orchestra milieu. Balada sets texts by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra, creating a single-movement cantata (almost as long as the nine movements of Rubáiyát) that was first performed in Madrid only last year. Finally here are Four Songs from the Opera “Rasputin,” Rautavaara’s most-recent opera (2001-03). These are dramatic, intense works that the composer arranged for mixed choir and orchestra nearly a decade after completing the opera from which they are drawn. They stand effectively on their own in this impressive arrangement and, in fact, may make listeners more eager to see and hear the opera itself. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds has performed and recorded a considerable amount of Rautavaara’s music, always handling it with a sure sense of style and a strong commitment to the underlying emotional content that Rautavaara presents no matter what his stylistic preferences of the moment may be. This disc is no exception: it is well-played, well-sung and thoroughly convincing.