Bach: Christmas Oratorio. Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones; Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt. Linn Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).
James Whitbourn: Carolae—Music for Christmas. Eric Rieger, tenor; Daryl Robinson, organ; Westminster Williamson Voices conducted by James Jordan. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: Visions (2016); Requiem (1985). Temple Church Boys’ Choir, Cambridge Singers and Aurora Orchestra conducted by John Rutter. Collegium. $16.99.
A Great Distance: A Collection of Chinese and American Art Song. Juliet Petrus, soprano; Lydia Qiu, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Thomas Osborne: Like Still Water; Dreams of Sky and Sea; And the Waves Sing Because They Are Moving; Songs of a Thousand Autumns. Tracy Satterfield, soprano; members of Aperio. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Genuine masterpieces that are associated with specific holidays are few and far between. Two that are preeminent are Handel’s Messiah for Easter and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The result is that these works tend to be over-represented by recordings, and it is easy to wonder whether yet another version of either of them could possibly be worthwhile. On a new Linn Records release, it takes about 30 seconds for John Butt and the Dunedin Consort to answer that query with a resounding “yes” where Bach’s work is concerned. The opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket, is sit-up-and-take-notice bright and brilliant, so involving and appealing that it practically pulls listeners to the edge of their seats in anticipation of what is to come. It is hard to imagine a better start of the Christmas Oratorio than this one. And the passion and intensity never flag through the six cantatas that make up this work. Butt does an especially wonderful job of highlighting the distinctions among the six, which Bach orchestrates very carefully to evoke specific aspects of the Christmas story. The brilliance of sound dominates Part 1. Part 2 maintains a rural focus, befitting the story of the shepherds abiding in their fields, with extensive use of oboes and flutes. Part 3 has an inward sound, emphasized by the solo violin in the second aria, and is concerned with contemplation and humility. The dance-like opening and closing music of Part 4 transports listeners to a more elegant venue, with a wonderful second aria in which Bach uses tenor, two violins and continuo to proclaim the strength drawn from meditating on Jesus’ name. Part 5 is all about the star that leads the wise men, and the lifting of spirits that the celestial display portends. And Part 6, which again offers brilliance along the line of Part 1, does so in connection with the sure victory of Jesus and his followers over the forces of darkness. Soloists and chorus alike are ideally suited for their roles in this splendid reading of the score, and the instrumental playing is exceptional. Butt has studied Bach’s performance practices extensively, and puts that knowledge to superb use both in the solo passages and in the choruses. This is an unusual recording because it has, on the one hand, excellent intellectual underpinnings, and on the other, so much visceral attraction through the quality of the performance that the work seems to unfold naturally and in the only way it possibly can. The many other recordings of the Christmas Oratorio show this not to be the case, of course, and indeed, numerous excellent versions of this music are available. But this one is transcendent, in the sense that it encapsulates the meaning of Christmas as Bach saw it and at the same time goes well beyond the season to speak to listeners at any time of year. Butt makes it clear in his booklet notes that he does not see the performance as “definitive” and doubts that any single reading can be, saying that this recording “is definitely not meant to provide the model for all possible performances of this work.” That is a suitably modest comment, but one that belies the many excellences here: this may not be a definitive reading, but it is one to which there are ample reasons to turn again and again for enjoyment inextricably woven with enlightenment.
The intentions and music are far more modest on a new Naxos CD of Christmas music, mostly by James Whitbourn (born 1963). This is a strictly seasonal item, and one that features a smattering of world première recordings: Veni et illumina (2015), The Magi’s Dream (2011), and A great and mighty wonder (2002). And it concludes, rather interestingly, with a work that is not by Whitbourn but by Garth Edmundson (1892-1971): Toccata on Von Himmel Hoch from 1937, which caps the material quite effectively. As for the mostly short individual items here, they all communicate their messages in the straightforward manner for which Whitbourn is known, although it is a trifle odd that the Missa Carolae of 2004 is here split into three parts, with other works inserted among them. And it is a trifle jarring to hear the mass’s concluding Agnus Dei followed by a 2003 Steve Pilkington arrangement of the Coventry Carol. Also here is Pilkington’s 1994 arrangement of I Wonder as I Wander. The performances are uniformly fine of the music by Whitbourn and others: the Westminster Williamson Voices are clear, enunciate well, and sing with suitable understanding and reverence. This is a (+++) CD in part because of its strictly limited appeal and in part because the arrangement of the material is on the odd side – one interruption of Missa Carolae, for example, comes from Winter’s Wait, Whitbourn’s 2010 setting of Robert Tear’s poem, which sounds strange coming after the Gloria and before the Sanctus.
Another major contemporary British composer of accessible and well-crafted vocal music, John Rutter (born 1945), comes across more effectively on a new (++++) Collegium CD that represents the Cambridge Singers’ second recording of Rutter’s Requiem as well as the first recording of a major new work, Visions. These are pieces of significant religious expression, but they are not limited to the Christmas season and are not, for that matter, entirely created using standard Christian texts. Rutter did something rather bold with his Requiem, mixing parts of the traditional Latin words with several English-language psalms. Thus, the Kyrie is succeeded by a movement based on Psalm 130, and Agnus Dei does not conclude the work – it is followed by Psalm 23 and then by Lux aeterna. Rutter does some things here in accordance with tradition, for example by orchestrating the Sanctus brightly and using bells and timpani to good effect. He does other things in a less-expected way, such as writing a cello solo for the movement based on Psalm 130. Rutter’s work is sometimes deemed a bit too accessible, and it certainly shows influences of pop music in its rather saccharine emotional expression and its easy-to-sing-and-hear harmonies. But his Requiem is quite effective in its mixing of traditional and added elements, and it gets a very fine, well-blended and well-balanced reading here. As for Visions, this is a four-movement work for solo violin, harp, string orchestra and treble voices. Its focus is Jerusalem – not the divided and highly controversial city of today, except by implication, but the Jerusalem that the biblical prophets referred to again and again as the Holy City. Kerson Leong, the solo violinist here, is the performer for whom this part was written, and he does a fine job with it. And the movements are expressive of what is essentially a utopian ideal of heavenly peace on Earth – a suitable Christmastime message, to be sure, but not a specifically seasonal one, being the sort of unrealistic but hoped-for wish that is suitable at any time, in any season.
The vocal material on a (+++) MSR Classics CD has some intriguing elements even though it is of lesser consequence. A Great Distance is a “concept” release, designed to explore the mutual influence of Western and Chinese cultures on each other’s art songs. This is a bit of an abstruse concept, and while Juliet Petrus sings the works here sensitively and with subtlety of intonation and expression – and is well backed up by pianist Lydia Qiu – the musical material itself is less than compelling. Three Chinese folk songs, heard at the end of the CD, are especially pleasant in their forthright simplicity. And the Four Chinese Love Lyrics by John Duke that precede the folk songs are the best example of cross-pollination to be heard here. The remaining material is intermittently interesting without ever be musically compelling enough to encourage listeners to hear this recording as more than an attempt to make what is foundationally an academic argument regarding mutual musical influences. In addition to Duke, the composers heard here are Huang Zi, Xiao Youmei, Qing Zhu, John Alden Carpenter, Ding Shande, and Luo Maishuo. The China-originating material retains thematic elements common in Chinese poetry, and sometimes (but not always) is presented musically using Chinese musical sounds, or at least ones that are exotic by Western standards. The American material makes an effort to sound “Chinese-y” through text choice and certain musical elements. All this shows that Chinese and American composers alike are interested in exploring some new forms of expression and are willing to reach beyond the typical confines of Western and Oriental art songs, respectively, to do so. This is good to know, but it is something less than revelatory; the CD is pleasantly off the beaten track for listeners looking for something a bit new and different in the art-song realm.
Vocal elements are only part of another (+++) MSR Classics release, this one featuring world première recordings of four works by Thomas Osborne (born 1978). This music too has an Oriental connection: the longest work here, Songs of a Thousand Autumns for soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano, written in 2006, uses 13 texts by Korean poets Ono no Komachi and Sei Shonagon; and Dreams of Sky and Sea for soprano, percussion and piano, written in 2012, uses Japanese texts by Kim Sowol. Water metaphors are common in both works: “I know nothing about villages where fisherfolk dwell” and “Since my heart placed me on board your drifting ship” in the former, for example, and “The Sea” and “Red Tide” in the latter. Osborne’s style is one of fairly straightforward modernity – it is not so much undistinguished as it is un-distinctive. He handles the rhythms of the poetry successfully in an essentially atonal but not strongly dissonant mode, but the accompaniment adds little to the words, which are evocative enough in themselves. The CD also includes two water-themed non-vocal works: Like Still Water (2004) for percussion and piano, and And the Waves Sing Because They Are Moving (also 2004) for piano solo. As the titles show, these pieces too have poetic inspiration, even though they do not contain sung poetry. Here too, however, the titles lead listeners to expect a level of impressionism that is not forthcoming. The music seems to reflect Osborne’s highly personal feelings about water and what lies over a distant horizon that can barely be glimpsed far beyond a liquid expanse. The communicative nature of the material, though, is not sufficiently precise to indicate what Osborne sees, or thinks he sees; nor is it involving enough to encourage listeners to come up with their own aquatic impressions. The performers, from a contemporary-music ensemble called Aperio, approach the material with skill and understanding, and soprano Tracy Satterfield emotes well in the two vocal works. But the CD seems an undertaking most likely to appeal to those who already know Osborne’s music rather than to anyone outside his inner circle.
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