The King’s Singers Christmas Songbook. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Michael Nyman: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Matthew Treviño, bass; Rebecca Sjöwall, soprano; Ryan MacPherson, tenor; Nashville Opera conducted by Dean Williamson. Naxos. $12.99.
Maximilian Steinberg: Passion Week. The Clarion Choir conducted by Steven Fox. Naxos. $12.99.
Heaven and Earth—A Duke Ellington Songbook. Danielle Talamantes, vocals; Henry Dehlinger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Sometimes the sheer vocal quality of a recording is enough to raise it to excellence even when the material being sung is on the thin side. That is the case with the latest King’s Singers CD, a seasonal celebration from Signum Classics that mixes well-known American carols with some from “the other side of the pond.” The result is a blend that, if not quite as seamless as the blending of the singing group itself, is every bit as smooth as a perfectly prepared cup of hot cocoa, and just as warming. This 16-song release is the final recording featuring longtime King’s Singers countertenor David Hurley, whose distinctive voice, high but never shrill, contributed a great deal to the group’s overall sound. But as always, this is a release in which the whole ensemble, not any individual singer, is the focus. The exceptional adaptability of the King’s Singers is shown in the handling here of songs as different as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town and White Christmas, either of which could easily be a throwaway and neither of which is. The group’s beautiful melding is apparent in different ways in numbers such as The First Nowell and Silent Night. Also offered here are It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Carol of the Bells, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, Ding Dong! Merrily on High, Sleigh Ride, The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot, Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and a curiosity in the form of Frosty vs. Rudolph: The Re-boot. And if We Wish You a Merry Christmas is the inevitable final track here, the British carols In the Bleak Midwinter (well-known to lovers of the music of Gustav Holst, but likely not to Americans in general) and Still, Still, Still provide some unexpected touches in this beautifully presented seasonal compendium. The King’s Singers simply have a way of bringing joy to the world.
Much more serious, much less seasonal, and much more of an intellectual experience than an emotionally visceral one, Michael Nyman’s 1986 chamber opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, gets a first-rate performance from Nashville Opera on a new Naxos CD. Based on the eponymous case study by Oliver Sacks, and with Sacks himself as one of the three librettists (with Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris), this three-singer work explores what it would be like for music itself to be a lifeline for someone whose illness deprives the world of visual meaning. This is a rarefied concept and a more-complex topic than is usual in opera, and Nyman’s approach to the material is equally cerebral: he uses songs by Robert Schumann as the basis for a series of variations that collectively represent the mental decline of the character Dr. P (Matthew Treviño). The primary song Nyman uses is the seventh from the Dichterliebe cycle, Ich grolle nicht (“I bear no grudge”), whose association with the topic of the opera (and the underlying case study) is clear. Because Dr. P is a music professor, the use of music as a way to reach out to him and a way for him to understand the world, or at least get by in it, makes sense. Dr. P’s centrality to the story is maintained throughout, as Mrs. P (Rebecca Sjöwall) and an unnamed-in-the-opera investigating neurologist (Ryan MacPherson) explore the situation, trying to make sense of it and find a way to manage it for their own sakes as well as that of Dr. P. The music is minimalist and, stripped of the stage action, would not likely be to many listeners’ taste were it not for the fact that its constant dissolution and re-formation so effectively reproduce Nyman’s imagined workings of a mind at odds with itself. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is more melodic than is usual in minimalism and more dramatic as well, and the story pulls in listeners through its oddity and emotional implications despite the lack of typical opera-style drama or melodrama. Few contemporary operas are as conceptually intriguing as this one, which succeeds in part because of its limited cast and short duration (under an hour). The Nashville Opera recording under Dean Williamson is a very fine one, with the clarity of orchestral playing particularly noteworthy – the music both underlines and provides balance to the lack of certainty of what is happening in Dr. P’s mind, and it is satisfying (and ultimately understandable) that music should become a portal of sorts through which Dr. P is able to enter, or re-enter, the world occupied by his wife and the neurologist.
A vocal work of broader conceptualization and considerable historical interest – but limited musical attractiveness – is Passion Week (1923) by Lithuanian-born Russian (later Soviet) composer Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946). A co-student with Igor Stravinsky of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Steinberg never adopted more-modern compositional techniques and approaches as Stravinsky did, Steinberg’s music remaining so conservative that even under Soviet dictates, he was able to continue composing without difficulty – he was already creating the sorts of works that the authorities favored, and had little trouble adapting to the requirements of more-nationalistic themes as they were increasingly mandated. Steinberg remains well-regarded as a pedagogue, but his music is nowadays little heard, and indeed tends to sound a bit like generic warmed-over late-Romantic Russian material – although Steinberg was a skilled orchestrator, and his instrumental use is noteworthy. Passion Week is a bit of a mystery, having been composed after the Bolshevik Revolution, at a time when Orthodox Christian works were no longer acceptable to perform and were not even supposed to be created. The work languished in Steinberg’s lifetime and for decades thereafter, receiving its world première complete performance as recently as 2014. The music, not surprisingly, is redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov, who was not only Steinberg’s teacher but also became his father-in-law (Steinberg’s Symphony No. 2 of 1909 is titled “In memoriam Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov”). Passion Week also recalls in some ways the All-Night Vigil of Rachmaninoff from 1915 – but is even more closely related to Aleksandr Grechaninov’s 1912 Passion Week, composed on 13 Old Slavonic texts. Steinberg’s work’s text differs from that used by Grechaninov in ways mainly important to students of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Grechaninov used texts heard throughout the period of Great Lent; Steinberg chose only ones directly tied to Holy Week. And unlike Grechaninov, Steinberg based all but one movement of his work directly on traditional chant – the foundation of Russian church singing. Steinberg’s work here is less opulent than in much of his other music, with a degree of mild dissonance and a sense of objective narration paralleled in the musical material. The Clarion Choir under Steven Fox performs this nearly hour-long work with sensitivity, style and a sense of emotional involvement. But the work does not reach out either in text or in music to an audience beyond that of the Russian Orthodox believers for whom it was intended. The Naxos recording is quite fine, and certainly Steinberg’s Passion Week represents a significant addition to the Russian religious choral repertoire of its time. But this (+++) release is one of very limited appeal, its extended choral material of interest to singers, vocal ensembles, and followers of Russian Orthodoxy and large-scale compositions within its traditions – but not likely to generate much enthusiasm beyond those groups.
There is also somewhat limited appeal in a (+++) MSR Classics release called Heaven and Earth—A Duke Ellington Songbook. There is a bit of a religious connection here, too, with tracks called Come Sunday, Heaven, and Almighty God Has Those Angels. But this CD is primarily for a secular audience interested in Ellington’s music as interpreted in what is essentially art-song format, with soprano Danielle Talamantes and pianist Henry Dehlinger presenting a dozen Ellington tunes in a variety of arrangements. The disc includes Imagine My Frustration, In a Sentimental Mood, Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me, Prelude to a Kiss, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Sophisticated Lady, I’m Beginning to See the Light, Solitude and Meditation – that is, a blend of highly familiar and somewhat less familiar Ellington, with everything very well sung and played if perhaps without quite as much “swing” as one might wish for in a recording blending jazz-originating material with arrangements and performances drawn from more of a traditional classical vocal recital. “Crossover” music is nothing new anymore, but this is more of a crossover performance: the music itself comes firmly from the jazz world. The settings – by Larry Ham, Caren Levine, Marvin Mills and Dehlinger – are all nicely done, and Talamantes looks for and often finds considerable emotional resonance in this music. But her voice is too effectively operatic for these ultimately rather slight tunes: she often sounds as if she is holding back from the sort of full-throated expressiveness that opera and other classical forms demand. There is pleasant camaraderie, a kind of mutual respect and enjoyment, in her musical interactions with Dehlinger: the best part of this recording is the sense it gives of listening in at an intimate friends-only gathering of Ellington aficionados. Strictly on a musical basis, though, the material is rather thin – an enjoyable aural sojourn for Ellington fans, but not one likely to be preferred to the singing of his music by less vocally skilled but more idiomatically adept performers than Talamantes.
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