September 01, 2016


John Tavener: Missa Wellensis; The Lord’s Prayer; Love bade me welcome; Preces and Responses; Psalm 121—I Will Lift up Mine Eyes unto the Hills; Magnificat and Nunc dimittis “Collegium Regale”; Song for Athene; Prayer for the healing of the sick; They are all gone into the world of light. Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Matthew Owens. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Songs of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow—Music by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Asmik Grigorian, soprano; Irina Shishkova, mezzo-soprano; Mikhail Guzhov, bass; Igor Morozov, tenor; Vadim Volkov, countertenor; Helikon Opera Chorus and Academic State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, “Evgeny Svetlanov,” conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $16.99.

Barbara Harbach: Terezín Children’s Songs; Nocturne Noir; Dorothy Parker Love Songs; The Birth, Life and Death of Christ. Stella Markou and Marlissa Hudson, sopranos; Julia Sakharova and John McGrosso, violin; Alla Voskoboynikova, piano; St. Louis Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Richards. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Dashing: Sounds of the Season. The Stanbery Singers conducted by Paul Stanbery; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra conducted by Henry Wolking. Navona. $14.99.

     There is virtually no limit to the communicative ways in which composers can use the human voice, so there is always a fertile field of fine new recordings featuring music from a variety of time periods, designed to communicate vocally in a variety of ways. The emphasis of the recordings differs a good deal, though, with some focused more on the music presented and others primarily attuned to the performers. The music and its underlying impetus are clearly the focus on a new Signum Classics release of sacred music by John Tavener (1944-2013). The entire CD is liturgical and a recognition of the comparative austerity of the music of Tavener’s last years, 2010-2013, after his three-year compositional hiatus following a severe heart attack in 2007. Most late Tavener is quite short, but Missa Wellensis, composed for Wells Cathedral Choir, is substantial, lasting nearly 20 minutes and scored for double choir. It manages to sound modern and old-fashioned at the same time, with an opening canonic Kyrie with the flavor of Bruckner followed by a more-introspective Christe and the remaining movements ranging from the energetic Sanctus to a delicate polyphonic Agnus dei. The assured and moving singing of the choir is also heard in the other major work on this disc, Preces and Responses, which is divided into three parts on the CD and recalls music as far back as that of Thomas Tallis. Both stately and, at times, chromatically unexpected, this is music intended to help listeners contemplate eternity as well as give thanks. The other works heard here come from various times in Tavener’s life and reflect both the expansiveness of his pre-2007 music and the clarity of his late works. Matthew Owens has constructed the program of the disc very carefully. After Missa Wellensis evokes the Eucharist, Owens presents the Lord’s Prayer and a Communion motet in the form of Love bade me welcome. Choral Evensong is represented not only by Preces and Responses but also by the settings of Psalm 121 and Magnificat and Nunc dimittis “Collegium Regale.” This turns Song for Athene, which includes words from Hamlet, into an Evensong anthem, although the work was actually written in memory of actress Athene Hariades in 1993 and became well-known when performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. In this disc’s sequence, Prayer for the healing of the sick stands in for spoken prayers, and They are all gone into the world of light becomes the final blessing. The beautifully sung CD specifically targets listeners who are familiar with its carefully organized religious message, along with ones who admire Tavener’s choral music and want to bask in an hour and a quarter of it. It is a rather large serving of this material for anyone else: the beauties here are many, but many of the differences among the works are subtle rather than pronounced, and the CD tends to drag for those not already enamored of the composer and his context.

     No one could accuse a new Delos recording featuring Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky of lacking drama or intensity. That is, in fact, almost all it contains. Hvorostovsky is primarily known for his Verdi, but here he presents an all-Russian program designed to showcase his commanding voice in works both familiar and little-known. The CD opens with the first scene of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, concludes with the seldom-heard final dramatic scene from Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon, and in between offers Tchaikovsky arias: Mazeppa’s from Mazeppa, Robert’s from Iolanta, and Tomsky’s Ballad and Tomsky’s Song from Queen of Spades. Soprano Asmik Grigorian joins Hvorostovsky in the Prokofiev and Rubinstein, and other strong Russian singers make brief appearances as well. The Tomsky arias will be of greatest interest to fans of Hvorostovsky, since this is not the role the singer usually takes in this opera – he normally sings Prince Eletsky. But the most intriguing material here comes from the rather uneven Rubinstein work: in the final scene, the demon kisses and thus kills the mortal woman he has come to love, but cannot take her soul because of the intercession of an angel (countertenor Vadim Volkov). The sequence is intriguing and dramatically quite effective – and will likely make listeners wonder what the rest of the opera is like. Indeed, this CD is a kind of “greatest hits” compilation, allowing Hvorostovsky plenty of chances to display his vocal technique (both dramatic and lyrical) but simply whetting listeners’ appetite for something more substantial than the beautifully sung snippets of operas offered here. The value of a release like this one is always an issue: the purpose is far more to showcase Hvorostovsky’s vocal abilities than to focus on the music through which those abilities are demonstrated – so this is therefore a kind of “souvenir for fans” rather than a serious exploration of the repertoire presented. Of course, for those who admire Hvorostovsky’s strong, assured voice, that is just fine.

     There is nothing grandiose about war, much less anything grand, and there is nothing dramatic about it, either, in Barbara Harbach’s Terezín Children’s Songs for soprano, violin and piano. The five songs – “Birdsong,” “Forgotten,” “On a Sunny Evening,” “The Butterfly,” and “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” – are based on words written by children at the Terezín “demonstration camp,” created as a showplace by the Nazis so they could conceal their death camps and claim to be providing something positive for Jews. Material from Terezín, and especially from its children, has been widely explored in recent years, and these songs are as affecting and delicately traumatic as might be expected – but for all Harbach’s compositional skill, she does not really bring anything emotionally or musically new to the settings; indeed, it is not clear what more can be brought to musical material based on the words of Terezín’s doomed children. Harbach is quite a prolific composer, and MSR Classics offers an ever-expanding library of her works: this is the label’s 10th Harbach volume and the fifth specifically devoted to her chamber music. Because Harbach has written in a variety of forms and for a variety of purposes, it is possible to structure a disc’s program in some intriguing ways, which is what happens here. The Terezín songs are followed by Nocturne Noir for solo piano, which, its title notwithstanding, seems less black than the environment in which the children’s words were written – indeed, this gentle piano piece provides a measure of comfort after the songs. Then there is a mood change to a very different sort of song cycle for soprano, violin and piano: Dorothy Parker Love Songs includes three pieces called “A Certain Lady,” “Nocturne” and “Love Song,” which manage to be expressive, occasionally witty and by no means as biting as Parker’s writing could sometimes be. The contrast with the children’s songs from Terezín is surely intentional and quite pronounced, emphasized by use of the same performance forces. The sophistication of Parker’s writing and the adult emotions it expresses stands in stark relief against the simpler language and more-straightforward words of young people who were never to grow to adulthood or experience love as adults do. Stella Markou is highly sensitive to the nuances of both song cycles and does a fine job of contrasting them. Listeners will have to decide for themselves how the two vocal cycles mesh with the longest work on this CD – more lengthy than both song groupings put together – which is entirely instrumental. It is The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, a score from a 1906 silent film directed by early French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968). In the absence of the visuals, this chamber-orchestra score must stand on its own, which it does musically but not so much from a storytelling perspective. The scenes it is intended to illustrate are entirely expected, opening with the arrival in Bethlehem and the Nativity; including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus before Pilate, and the bearing of the cross; then moving toward the crucifixion, removal to the tomb and the concluding resurrection. The half-hour film is in 25 episodes and had a large budget and cast for its time (300 extras). It is a straightforwardly devout treatment of its topic: Guy-Blaché used the illustrations from the James Tissot Bible as her guide to visualizing the scenes. Harbach’s music is also straightforward and rather conventional; it is clear again and again that it is calling on listeners to become emotionally involved in the proceedings, but in the absence of the actual film, the music does not reach out in any especially clear or distinctive way. The St. Louis Chamber Orchestra under James Richards handles the score nicely; but of the four world première recordings making up this disc, the film score, although pleasant enough and certainly well-crafted, is the least distinguished.

     Both the sacred and the secular side of Christmas are on display on a new Navona CD called Dashing: Sounds of the Season. The 14 tracks here offer works of 10 composers, the pieces ranging from the exceptionally well-known (Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker) to the well-known-but-not-in-this-arrangement (Henry Wolking’s jazz version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Christopher J. Hoh’s African-American-spiritual approach to Behold That Star) to the not-yet-known-but-highly-spirited (Delvyn Case’s Rocket Sleigh and Timothy Lee Miller’s A Christmas Celebration). All these two-to-five-minute pieces have appropriate seasonal flavor and often the ring of familiarity even when they are new – David Tanner’s orchestral version of A Visit from St. Nicholas, narrated by Kerry Stratton, being an obvious case in point. Also here are Alphonse Adam’s O Holy Night, in Tanner’s arrangement; three Peter Deutsch works for solo wind instruments and chorus – A Winter’s Rime with English horn, The Holly and the Ivy with flute, and Hodie Christus Natus Est with trumpet; James Shrader’s Balulalow and In the Bleak Midwinter; Hoh’s Come Now and Celebrate; and Phillip Rhodes’ A Lullaby for the Nativity, whose organ-and-violin accompaniment to the chorus casts a pleasant and peaceful spell. Nicely sung and well played by orchestra and soloists alike, this is a strictly seasonal offering that listeners are unlikely to pull out and revisit in any non-Christmas context. In that sense it is a disc of limited interest. But the music itself is appealing in a more-general sense, and if the CD is shelved soon after the holiday season for which it was created, it can certainly be taken out and re-heard for many such seasons in later years.

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