July 06, 2017


Brahms: Die schöne Magelone. Nikolay Borchev, baritone; Boris Kusnezow, piano. Genuin. $18.99.

Decades: A Century of Song, Volume 2—1820-1830. Anush Hovhannisyan, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; John Mark Ainsley, Robin Tritschler and Luis Gomes, tenors; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Vivat. $18.99.

Gordon Getty: The Canterville Ghost. Alexandra Hutton, soprano; Jean Broekhuizen, Denise Wernly and Rachel Marie Hauge, mezzo-sopranos; Timothy Oliver, tenor; Jonathan Michie and Anooshah Golesorkhi, baritones; Matthew Treviño, bass; Oper Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester conducted by Matthias Foremny. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Jonathan David Little: Sacred and Secular Choral and Polychoral Works. Navona. $14.99.

Brian Belet: Compositions for Computer, Live Instruments, and Voice. Ravello. $14.99.

     It would be logical to assume that composers seeking a genuine connection with audiences would turn, above all, to the human voice, enhancing the usual communicative power of speech with music that would emphasize and underline arguments and emotions. This is not quite right, though. Although many composers do use the voice this way, others treat it as simply another instrument, focusing on how it sounds rather than on what is being said – or use it to present the narrative basis of a story whose emotional underpinnings are then captured and enhanced by instrumental accompaniment. It is this latter approach that Brahms takes with Die schöne Magelone, a curious song cycle that comes as close as anything in Brahms’ oeuvre to opera. It is not an opera, not at all, but much of the vocal writing is operatic or near-operatic, the 15 songs are collectively substantial in length (50-plus minutes), and the underlying story is definitely the stuff of opera librettos. Unfortunately for modern listeners, that story is completely obscure today, and is not well told by the songs themselves. The songs are contained within a work by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) called The Romance of Magelone the Fair and Peter Count of Provence, but Tieck’s plot is quite intelligible without the songs (which Tieck and Brahms both called “romances”); the vocal material forms an adjunct to the story rather than an integral part of it. Without knowing the story, though, the songs’ meanings are obscure. For most listeners today, the music – vocal and instrumental – is the reason to hear Brahms’ Magelone cycle, and the meaning is at best secondary, at worst insignificant. And it is as a purely musical experience that the performance on Genuin, by baritone Nikolay Borchev and pianist Boris Kusnezow, excels. Borchev’s pronunciation of the German text is not always idiomatic, but his involvement in the music comes through strongly throughout the cycle, and Kusnezow’s excellent pianism places him in full partnership with the singer and, indeed, at times in the forefront of the collaboration, his instrument commenting forcefully on the verbiage. Brahms created these songs with considerable care, for example using simple strophic form only for a single brief song expressing the forthright feelings of a secondary love interest who is not really much of a challenge to Magelone. The other strophic songs are varied each time verses are repeated – and many songs are in rondo-like ternary or expanded ternary form rather than being strophic at all. It is possible to admire Brahms’ elegant structuring of individual songs and the cycle as a whole even while noting that the word “cycle” is a bit of a misnomer here: for those unfamiliar with Tieck’s work – in which some of these “romances” occur within the narrative and others are commentaries upon it – the overall sequence and its individual parts will have little real meaning. Yet for all that, Die schöne Magelone is a fascinating and unjustly (if  somewhat understandably) neglected work, and one very much worth hearing in a performance as good as this one.

     If Brahms’ Magelone is a somewhat rarefied experience, so, to an even greater degree, is a Vivat CD series called Decades: A Century of Song. The century referred to is the 19th. The series’ first volume included songs from 1810 to 1820, and the second volume offers ones from 1820 to 1830. There are nine by Schubert, three by Glinka, three by Bellini, two by Carl Loewe (1796-1869), and one each by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Louis Niedermeyer (1802-1861). Lovers of lieder will certainly enjoy this mixture of the familiar and less-known, and all the songs are performed with relish and emotional understanding by first-class singers. The mingling of musical cultures here – Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Russia – in interesting, and the specific selections contain some surprises: Mendelssohn’s lasts only a minute and a half, while one of Loewe’s is six minutes long and the offering from Niedermeyer lasts seven-and-a-half (longer than anything here except Schubert’s Ellens Gesang). As an exploration of classical song in various geographical areas during one specific decade, this CD is quite intriguing. It is also quite distinctly limited as to likely audience interest: it seems primarily intended for listeners who have already decided that they want to collect the entire decade-by-decade series of discs.

     Gordon Getty’s one-act, one-hour opera The Canterville Ghost is also a targeted rather than general-interest release. It is quite well-done in its handling of Oscar Wilder’s novella, his first published story (1887): Getty has a fine sense of the contrast between Old World and New World that lies at the heart of the tale, in which Americans move into a haunted castle and refuse to be frightened by the resident ghost. Getty is not the first contemporary composer to create an opera based on this story: Alexander Knaifel did so back in 1966. And the novella has been adapted in many other media, including film and television. So Getty’s handling of it as a rather traditional opera, using his own libretto, is quite fine but on the straightforward side. In Wilde’s story, the American family’s 15-year-old daughter, Virginia, eventually helps the ghost find peace and move on to the next world, and the way in which she and the ghost learn from each other is ultimately the point of the story. Virginia is not exactly heroic, however – she is simply willing to take the ghost seriously. Getty casts Virginia (Alexandra Hutton) in a rather more heroic mode than is strictly necessary, and as a result the ghost (Matthew Treviño) is somewhat less the center of attention than he is in Wilde’s tale. In operatic terms, this certainly works, and the two characters’ voices are particularly well contrasted (she being the only soprano in the cast and he the only bass). Wilde’s story itself repays multiple readings, since it includes the clash of values between Old and New Worlds, the meaning of growing up, and some meditations on life, death and love. Getty’s opera is more of a surface-level treat, but it is a treat nevertheless – for those interested in a story with 19th-century sensibilities being clothed in contemporary musical dress (the opera was first performed in 2015). The PentaTone recording is very fine, and opera lovers looking for something new – and not musically overstated – will find The Canterville Ghost involving, if not particularly haunting.

     Getty’s musical language is essentially tonal, his essential focus being on communicating the meaning of the words of his libretto. Other contemporary composers, however, handle the human voice differently, often drawing as much attention to it for its own sake as to what it is saying. A new Navona recording featuring works by Jonathan David Little moves more in this direction. There are six pieces here, three sacred and three secular – but one of them, Woefully Arrayed, is offered first as a very extended (25-minute) sacred piece and then a second time, at the CD’s conclusion, with the sacred elements removed and the music therefore becoming secular and being reduced in length by half. Little’s approach to choral music calls attention to itself as much as to what the singers are saying. For instance, he likes to position singers above and around the audience, which is scarcely a new technique, even in sacred music (Wagner, for example, used it to excellent effect in Das Liebesmahl der Apostel), but which Little makes integral to much of his work. Kyrie and Gloria on this CD are both sonically impressive and show understanding of older vocal forms, but some of their pauses and strong contrasts between loud and soft passages draw greater attention to Little’s compositional techniques than to the words of the singers. On the secular side of things, Wasted and Worn, intended as a memorial to painter John William Godward (1861-1922), features some beautiful vocal writing but little sense of either mourning or celebration of Godward’s life. That Time of Year, a sensitive setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, is more effective, although the layering of voices tends somewhat to obscure the gorgeous cadences of the bittersweet poem. The various performers here handle the music well, and many elements of Little’s works are effective and even affecting; but taken as a whole, the pieces tend to distract attention from the words rather than use the vocal lines and ranges to focus more strongly on the meaning of the texts.

     Little is, however, more traditionally respectful of the voice than is Brian Belet, whose music on a new Ravello disc is far more concerned with electronic manipulation of vocal sounds than with using humans’ vocal capabilities as a conduit for better communication with other humans. Belet is a performer on computerized electronic equipment, using the Kyma System to produce tones and soundscapes not otherwise to be found in nature. In one of the 10 works here, Remembering Allen, it is Belet’s own voice that is combined with Kyma, while in Name Droppings there are multiple voices used, and in Sea Lion Mix the voices and Kyma are indeed mixed with the barks of sea lions. Belet creates musical soundscapes in which the human voice is simply a tool used to create and evoke sounds: two of the pieces here, Difference (No Doubt It Queues) and  An Abstract (Differences (Queues)), contain nothing but a computer- processed voice. Like many other contemporary composers, Belet draws attention to himself and the presumed cleverness of his constructs through titles, here including (Disturbed) Radiance for piano and Kyma and Still Harmless [Bass]ically for electric bass and Kyma. For listeners not already enamored of computerized and electronically modified sound environments, a little of Belet’s material will go a long way, and the preponderance of Kyma will wear thin quickly: it appears as integrally in Lyra for violin and Kyma as in Summer Phantoms: Nocturne for piano and Kyma. The pieces here were recorded over nearly two decades, from 1997 to 2016, and all are in a single continuous movement except the three-movement System of Shadows, which is for C trumpet, B-flat flugelhorn and the inevitable Kyma – and which considers celestial phenomena with a 21st-century version of sounds of the sort that were innovative when produced by György Ligeti 50-plus years ago and by Edgard Varèse a full century in the past, but are now rather passé. In the works of Belet and other, similar composers, the communicative potential of the human voice is beside the point: its sonic production and Belet’s ability to manipulate it are what this material is all about. Seventy-plus minutes of this kind of treatment of voice (and instruments) will be far more than enough for all but the most dedicated fan of music whose craftsmanship is undoubted but whose ability to put non-superficial messages across to listeners is quite beside the point.

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