August 10, 2017
(++++) WHEN WORDS AND MUSIC MINGLE
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Kristin Sampson, soprano; Edith Dowd, alto; Cameron Schutza, tenor; Brian Kontes, bass; New Amsterdam Singers, West Point Glee Club, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.
David Bednall: Choral Works. Stephan Farr, organ; The Epiphoni Consort conducted by Tim Reader. Delphian. $19.99.
David Garner: Chanson für Morgen; Mein blaues Klavier; Phönix; Song Is a Monument. Nanette McGuinness, soprano; Adaiba MacAdams-Somer, cello; Dale Tsang, piano. Centaur. $14.99.
The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth has long been considered so overwhelming –and was in its own time so genuinely new – that it has overshadowed the first three movements even though those three make up two-thirds of the symphony’s length. The symphony is now so familiar, even over-familiar, that the meaning and importance of its words is sometimes lost in enjoyment of the finale’s extremely well-known theme and the movement’s many fascinating and even peculiar touches (what exactly is a Turkish march doing in it?). Certainly Beethoven himself felt the words of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude deeply, and there have been some suggestions that Schiller really intended the verses to be sung about Freiheit, freedom, as Leonard Bernstein had them sung after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and that Beethoven knew this. Whatever the truth of the matter, it shows quite clearly the importance of words even when the music paired with them is transcendent, as Beethoven’s is. The new Beethoven Ninth led by David Bernard makes this unusually clear: Bernard conducts a relatively small orchestra and quite a large chorus, or rather three choruses singing together. This is musical chance-taking: Beethoven’s deafness led to some compositional infelicities and lack of clarity in this symphony’s final movement, and conductors always have to figure out how best to dispose the solo quartet against the chorus and the voices against the instruments. Indeed, it is in decisions about balance that many of the major differences among performances may be found. Bernard strongly emphasizes percussion in the finale in order to bring out the big sound he is looking for – an unconventional approach that is certainly worth hearing. The singing is worth hearing, too, with the choruses all quite fine and the female soloists, Kristin Sampson and Edith Dowd, sounding warm and intense and, indeed, somewhat better than the men: Brian Kontes is smooth-voiced but rather stolid, and Cameron Schutza sounds somewhat strained, notably in that Turkish-march section. Bernard’s tempos are on the brisk side, not only in the finale but also in the first three movements – and although Bernard does somewhat over-emphasize the symphony’s conclusion, as do so many other conductors, he also offers some fine touches earlier in the work. The shimmering opening of the first movement, strongly contrasted with the intensity of brass and timpani soon afterwards, is a highlight; the smooth flow of the fairly quickly paced third movement is another. The sound on the Recursive Classics release is quite fine, capturing the many nuances of Bernard’s attentive reading and making the comparatively small size of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into an advantage most of the way through the work. The balance in the finale, which is indeed a balancing act, takes a bit of getting used to, but it does work and does lead to some insightful as well as skilled presentation. It is a shame that the symphony appears alone on the CD, because the work is so well-known that it is hard to understand why a listener would want yet another version of it – the disc would have been more attractive if, for example, it had also included the Choral Fantasia, which uses the same theme as the finale of the symphony but sets very different words and, as a result, has a very different effect. As is, this is a well-played, well-sung, well-recorded Beethoven’s Ninth with attractive details and a strong sense of the importance of the way words and music fit together in the finale – not a must-have recording, but one well worth owning.
A new Delphian disc of choral works by David Bednall is a (+++) CD of more-limited interest, but for those who do want to hear some very well-made and sensitively sung choral music – especially those who themselves sing in a chorus – it will be quite welcome. Bednall (born 1979) has a sure sense of antiphony and polyphony, a good feel for expressive vocal writing, and the ability to produce works that are attractive whether using secular or sacred texts. The 17 tracks on this CD lean more toward the sacred, and there is a certain similarity to all the writing that stamps it as firmly grounded in British choral tradition. One reason is a kind of folklike sound to many of the pieces, both religious and worldly. Bednall is quite capable of handling a large number of voices with excellent sonic clarity – Lux orta est iusto, a 40-part motet, is a perfect example of this and the single most impressive (and expressive) piece on the CD. But Bednall also shows considerable understanding of more-modest settings such as those of Shakespeare’s well-known Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and his less-popular Sonnet 98. The remaining works here are Three Songs of Love (the second in two parts on two tracks); three movements from Welcome All Wonders; the English-language Rise up, my love, Everyone Sang, A Wedding Prayer, Sudden Light,, and The Argument of His Book; and the Latin Te lucis ante terminum and Tota pulchra est. Only three of the tracks include Stephen Farr on organ – the rest are strictly choral, with Tim Reader expertly leading the Epiphoni Consort (the name, pronounced “epiphany,” being somewhat over-cute, but the singers being dedicated, well-balanced and clearly committed to this music). Contemporary choral music and choral works in general tend to be of somewhat limited interest, with a few notable exceptions (Beethoven’s Ninth being perhaps the obvious one). But Bednall’s pieces are so well-made and effective in their verbal settings that listeners with any interest in hearing a skilled modern composer’s handling of the chorus, with a clear understanding of choral music of the past and of the British choral tradition, will find this disc highly attractive.
Another fine CD of limited scope and appeal – defiantly so – is a new (+++) Centaur recording of music in which David Garner sets the words of four Jewish women who endured and survived World War II and Nazism. The performers are members of Ensemble for These Times, one of many chamber groups focusing specifically on 20th- and 21st-century music. Garner’s settings are effective, particularly in the longest work here, Chanson für Morgen (2012) to words by Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975). The eight songs encapsulate both the Jewish experience of World War II and that of Poland, from which Kaléko and her family emigrated. The pieces’ effectiveness lies in the way they speak of the destruction of Judaism and Jewish culture in Eastern Europe while making the loss of history and of a sense of belonging into a wider experience, not one unique to Jews or to a specific time period. This poetic reaching-out beyond the specific lends Chanson für Morgen generality, if not quite universality, that goes beyond the effect of the other works here: the three-song Mein blaues Klavier (2015) to poems by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), six-song Phönix (2013) to poems by Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), and five-song Song Is a Monument (2014) to poems by Yala Korwin (1933-2014). These three works speak from different angles of the poets’ determination to prevent the Jewish experience of the Holocaust from being forgotten. That makes them testimony of a sort, certainly valuable to the modern Jewish community and to historians focused on World War II and its effects. But neither the words nor Garner’s well-thought-out settings give these pieces anything like the reaching-out quality of Chanson für Morgen. The CD is by definition a “cause recording,” bearing the overall title “Jewish Music & Poetry Project – Surviving: Women’s Words.” It is thus self-limiting in audience and unlikely to be heard by anyone who does not already feel a kinship with or commitment to its concept. The implication is that the recording is designed for a narrow purpose and audience, and that limited focus is indeed present in three of Garner’s four works. It is the fourth, though, Chanson für Morgen, that will be most involving for anyone who hears it despite not being firmly committed to the material by a Jewish background or by a pre-existing interest in the time and topic explored here by Ensemble for These Times.