May 25, 2017


Jan Jirásek: Missa Propria; Si, Vis Amari, Ama; Mondi Paralleli; King Lávra. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

Eternal Life: Sacred Songs and Arias. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Dreux Montegut, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sergio Cervetti: Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani (1973); Piano Quintet—Toward the Abyss (2015); The Hay Wain for Virtual Orchestra (1987). Navona. $14.99.

Susan Kander: Hermestänze for violin and piano (2013); Solo Sonata for violin-viola-violin (2002); A Garden’s Time Piece for soprano and violin (2011). Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Lee Dionne, piano; Jessica Petrus, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Contemporary composers with an interest in musical concerns and forms of the past sometimes turn to vocal works to express a modern view of what has come before, and sometimes prefer to use instruments without voices. On a new Navona CD, Jan Jirásek serves as a good example of how a composer can use musical roots from earlier times to produce material that sounds distinctly modern. Jirásek combines traditional Latin texts and vocal forms from medieval days and the Renaissance in the three movements of Missa Propria, the four of Si, Vis Amari, Ama, and the seven of Mondi Paralleli, whose title means “Parallel Worlds” but whose elements include two Miserere movements, a Benedictus, a Sanctus, an Agnus Dei, a Te Deum laudamus, and a final Dona nobis pacem – that is, the elements of a traditional Catholic mass, although not in traditional order and not handled musically as they would have been in Bach’s time and earlier. Jirásek has clearly studied monophony and polyphony, and the choral music heard here contrasts the two approaches to good effect. He has also studied the works of much earlier composers, and structural echoes of them appear from time to time – notably references to Gesualdo in Missa Propria. Elements of Gregorian chant are frequent and clear in this music as well. But the voices that sing the music are ones that lend it an interestingly modern slant, because they are those of young girls (ages 5-19) from the Jitro Czech Girls Choir, conducted by Jiří Skopal. Hearing these light female voices declaiming and proclaiming the old Latin words usually sung by adults or, when offered by young singers, invariably by boys, lends the material an even more modern sound than do Jirásek’s settings themselves. And there is one work here, the one least directly (or most subtly) connected to older music, that shows its modernity especially clearly. This is King Lávra, in which Jirásek offers an update of the now-little-known form of medieval liturgical drama. It is the instruments added to the chorus that lend this piece its unusual coloration: piano (Michal Chrobák), percussion (Pavel Plašil), and ordinary household scissors (handled by Jirásek himself) as an added percussive element. To be sure, unusual sounds are not present only in this work: Jirásek actually has the chorus itself produce percussive effects from time to time throughout these compositions. But the way in which vocal and instrumental elements are integrated and contrasted in King Lávra makes this the most unusual-sounding piece on the CD, and the genuinely percussive nature of the repeated closing of the scissors manages to be both thoroughly modern and hauntingly effective in emphasizing elements of the text. Although King Lávra and the other works here will be attractive only to a limited audience – one interested in modern choral music as it revisits and reinterprets much-older material – the musicl will be quite intriguing to those to whom it does reach out successfully.

     The MSR Classics anthology disc called Eternal Life features much-less-elaborate scoring, with all the works here being for soprano and piano. The music is a sometimes-uneasy mixture of classical works, some of them quite well-known, with traditional spirituals and modern piece that listeners will likely hear here for the first time. There are 14 items in all, including Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, the Ave Maria settings by both Gounod and Schubert, Fauré’s En Prière, Gounod’s O Divine Redeemer, and Mendelssohn’s Hear Ye, Israel! from Elijah. There are also Olive Dungan’s Eternal Life: A Prayer for Peace, a setting of words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi; Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer; baritone Michael Maybrick’s song The Holy City, written under the pseudonym Stephen Adams to poetry by Frederick Weatherly; arrangements by Moses Hogan of the traditional He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and Give Me Jesus; and arrangements by Hall Johnson of the traditional His Name So Sweet and Ride On, King Jesus! This is thus a polyglot CD as well as a poly-musical one, presenting expressions of faith in a wide variety of ways and words, expressing many different spiritual elements in tones (vocal and musical) ranging from the traditionally reverent to the unabashedly upbeat and celebratory. Amy Pfrimmer and Dreux Montegut perform all the material with involvement and, as appropriate, enthusiasm, and the disc should be one that churchgoers, church choirs and anyone moved by old-time religion – as defined in multiple ways – will find suitably uplifting.

     There is a strongly religious inspiration for Sergio Cervetti’s Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani as well, but Cervetti chooses to interpret the biblical passage that inspired the work strictly instrumentally. His inspiration is the sentence, “And the seventh angel sounded the trumpet,” from the Book of Revelation. The trumpet is, unsurprisingly, dominant in the three sections of this single-movement work, which begins with a strongly articulated trumpet solo and then becomes a kind of battle-of-the-noisemakers piece in which brass and timpani aim to show the fear and wonder of the Last Judgment. Eventually, Cervetti uses violas and cellos to represent the reassurance of heavenly voices overseeing (as well as determining) the outcome of the apocalypse, with trumpet and timpani returning at the very end to reassert the circumstances under which the last days will take place. The work is somewhat overdone in its declamatory approach to the biblical predictions, but in strictly musical terms, it is an effective showpiece both for trumpet (Ondřej Jurčeka) and for orchestra (the Moravian Philharmonic conducted by Petr Vronský). The other two pieces here, also purely instrumental, have non-biblical inspirations that nevertheless are redolent of religion. Piano Quintet—Toward the Abyss was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem Le Voyage. It is intended to think through, musically, three elements of mortality and the afterlife, doing so through three movements called “Toward the abyss,” “Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?” and “To discover something new in the depths of the unknown.” The movements’ titles make the philosophical orientation of the work more obvious than does the music itself. The performers are Karolina Rojahn (piano), Omar Chen Guey and Rohan Gregory (violins), Peter Sulski (viola), and Jacques Lee Wood (cello), and all play with commitment and understanding. But the music is an agglomeration of so many techniques (twelvetone, minimalism, traditional harmony, and in the final movement a quotation from Bach’s Before Thy Throne I Now Appear) that the whole work comes across more as an intellectual exercise than as a heartfelt spiritual experience. The final piece on the CD, The Hay Wain, is even more of an acquired taste, with four movements inspired by the triptych of the same title by Hieronymus Bosch. The work is strictly electroacoustic, written for a “virtual orchestra” created, engineered and “played” by Cervetti himself. Its objective is to reflect Bosch’s famously inventive paintings of the horrors of the world and of the demons waiting for or devouring those who fail to adhere to the precepts of holiness. The titles of the four movements clearly reflect what Cervetti attempts here: “Fall of the Rebel Angels,” “The Lovers,” “Demons Construct the Tower,” and “The Procession.” But the music itself offers nothing special – just the usual yips and yawps, clangs and bangs of electronic music that could as well be representational of a factory scene as of a grand portrayal of Heaven, Earth and Hell. Listeners interested in the various methods that Cervetti has used to put across his musical and philosophical ideas over a period of more than 40 years will find this release intriguing, but those who are not already committed fans of Cervetti will likely find that the descriptive titles of the works and their component parts are ultimately more persuasive than the music to which the words refer.

     Susan Kander’s music on a new MSR Classics disc is more effectively reflective of what the chamber pieces heard here are trying to do. The primary performer here is Jacob Ashworth, a fine violinist and violist who is also Kander’s son – and who commissioned Hermestänze, a fascinating work that exemplifies a highly positive way of melding past and present. It is a sequence of 14 short movements, modeled directly on Schumann’s 19th-century piano cycles but giving the violin a chance to explore a variety of moods and techniques in the service of a specific story – just as Schumann gave that opportunity to the piano. Kander and Ashworth jointly made the happy decision to focus this work on the character of the Greek god Hermes, who is indeed one of the most multifaceted of all the Olympians. The cycle is carefully constructed: Hermes, no matter what else he might be doing, had the job of escorting the souls of the dead to the river Styx, and therefore Kander creates three separate “Styx” movements that occur within the cycle. The rest of it shows Hermes’ other roles, the best-known being that of messenger, which both begins and ends the cycle. Hermes’ relationships with other immortals are neatly portrayed as well, and if the music never quite encapsulates all the elements of the god’s personality, it does so often enough and to a great enough extent so that the cycle comes across both as interesting to hear and as evocative of a wide variety of circumstances. Both violin and piano (Lee Dionne) have their share of virtuosic requirements here, and both Ashworth and Dionne handle their roles with skill and apparent enjoyment of the material. Ashworth also does a first-rate job with Solo Sonata, which is another of the many works tied to the Islam-inspired mass murders of September 11, 2001, but which stands on its own musically without requiring listeners to focus unremittingly on the viciousness of the killers and the killings. Using a five-note motif in all three movements, Kander starts the work with a fairly straightforward Capricciosa rondo for violin, then moves to a heartfelt and very lyrical Lament for viola, and concludes with the interestingly titled “(Malevolent) Dances,” again for violin – a movement that, however, does not quite live up to its title and is neither as barbaric nor as intense in sound as one might expect it to be. The third work on the CD, A Garden’s Time Piece, offers a set of seven poems by Leslie Laskey, set for soprano and violin. The first poem, “Today’s the day,” both opens and closes the eight-movement cycle, just as the Hermes miniature focusing on his role as messenger starts and concludes Hermestänze. The use of violin rather than piano to accompany soprano Jessica Petrus makes A Garden’s Time Piece unusual among song cycles, but the poems themselves are nothing particularly strange or profound: they are about the frequent poetic topics of life, love and time. What Kander does interestingly here is to give the violin a kind of “commentator” role, the stringed instrument often exploring the musical material in greater depth than do the rather straightforward vocal settings. Kander is a composer of taste and refinement, and her subtle ways of communicating the emotional elements underlying these three works are, on the whole, more nuanced and ultimately more meaningful than the more-emphatic attempts of other contemporary composers to produce specific feelings and paint specific scenes.

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