December 07, 2017


Resonant Streams: Choral Music. University of Washington Chorale conducted by Giselle Wyers. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Szymanowksi: Songs. Krzysztof Biernacki, baritone; Michael Baron, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Dan Trueman: Olagón—A Cantata in Doublespeak. Iarla Ó Lionáird, vocalist; Eighth Blackbird. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

     Vocal music comes in so many varieties that it is hard to imagine any listener simply saying, “I like singing,” in the way someone might say, “I like opera” or “I like Romantic music.” Luckily, there are plenty of vocal offerings available, with all sorts of different works being performed by all sorts of different ensembles in all sorts of different languages for all sorts of different purposes.  The warmly attractive blended sounds of the members of the University of Washington Chorale, for example, are the primary attraction on a new MSR Classics release – more so than the specific pieces the ensemble performs. Indeed, the 16 offerings here are so much of a mixed bag as to be essentially a hodgepodge if you like them, a mishmash if you are less enthusiastic. The CD is really a showcase for the chorus’ sound, which is smooth and well-blended throughout, with conductor Giselle Wyers keeping everything nicely together and being sure the different choral sections are well-balanced. There is no particular order to the arrangement of material here. Three classical works from different eras are heard at the start: Hymn to the Waters by Gustav Holst, Surge, Amica Mea by Guillaume Bouzignac (c. 1587-1643), and Tunc Respexit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Then there is a Chinese folk song called Gao Shan Qing, and then another classical piece, Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Next is a work by Wyers herself, And Love Be Written on Running Water, followed by the hymn Idumea, Joshua Rist’s Invictus, and Barlow Bradford’s Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun. Next the CD returns to folk music, a song from China (Mo Li Hua) being followed by one from Sweden (Kristallen den Fina). The next piece is also from Scandinavia, being contemporary Finnish composer Lars Jansson’s Salve Regina for the Mothers of Brazil. Next are two works from contemporary American composers, Daniel Pinkham’s Awake O North Wind and Libby Larsen’s Comin’ to Town. Anyone not somewhat befuddled by the sequence by this point will probably be ready for the next item, which is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! And although this could have been a rousing finale for the disc, it is not the last piece on it: for that, we return to Finland for Nouse Lauluni by Soila Sariola. The singers are comfortable enough in the various languages to put forth good performances throughout, and they evince particular affinity for the hymn tunes. The specific sequence of the music does not seem to have any particular meaning, however; and the CD will appeal mainly to people whose particular love of vocal performances focuses on finely honed choral work.

     There is skill in multiple languages on another new MSR Classics CD as well – this one devoted to songs by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Baritone Krzysztof Biernacki, himself born in Poland, might be expected to handle the Polish-language offerings here with more than usual skill. But Szymanowski wrote songs in other languages as well, including several sets heard here. Five Songs, op. 13, to Texts by Richard Dehmel, Friedrich Bodenstedt & Otto Bierbaum is a work in German, and Three Songs, Op. 32, to Texts by Dmitri Davydov is in Russian. Biernacki sings all the songs, in all the languages here, feelingly and with verbal nuance, and he pronounces the words clearly – a matter of some importance to Szymanowski, as is shown by the settings themselves and by the balance within them between the singer and the pianist (Michael Baron in a subsidiary but still quite significant role). The Polish-language offerings here include Six Songs, Op. 2, to Texts by Kazimierz Tetmajer; The Swan, Op. 7, to Text by Wacław Berent; and Four Songs, Op. 11, to Texts by Tadeusz Miciński. All the early songs fit fairly comfortably into the Romantic model that Szymanowski followed for many years. Later ones, however, such as the three here in Russian, have somewhat more searching harmonies and, frequently, a touch of exotic coloring in the music. This is particularly evident, interestingly enough, in the latest song cycle on the disc, Seven Songs, Op. 54, to Texts by James Joyce. Szymanowski chose to set these songs in Polish rather than English, and their full flavor may therefore not come through as well to English speakers as would have been the case if he had used the original language. It does help to know Joyce’s original versions of, among others, My dove, my beautiful one and Rain has fallen all the day to get the strongest possible sense of Szymanowski’s carefully toned settings. Even without that knowledge, though, listeners whose taste in vocal offerings runs to single-voice recitals with piano will find this CD a pleasantly involving one.

     The pleasures of the new Cedille two-CD set featuring the contemporary chamber group Eighth Blackbird are considerably more rarefied and appear to be directed at a significantly narrower audience than those who fancy choral or single-voice recitals. Dan Trueman’s hour-and-a-half-long Olagón is intended as an immersive experience, and it is one that requires considerable pre-reading and study for the audience to be able to follow and become enmeshed in what Trueman and the sextet of Eighth Blackbird players are doing. Vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird sings in a way that is not traditional singing, nor is it Sprechstimme, nor is it reciting – it is a specifically Irish declamation style called sean nós. This fits with the fact that a certain amount of the text is in Gaelic – the work’s title is a word for a cry of mixed triumph and anguish – and the entire production is a modernized retelling of an old Irish epic. But the major narrative portions of Paul Muldoon’s texts are in English, and hearing words such as “co-signatory,” “machination” and “salmagundi” in some of the sections is intriguing and often unintentionally humorous. There is intentional humor here as well, in what is presented as the story of a decadent and amoral “power couple” whose world is intertwined with that of Ireland in the early 21st century. Actually, the entirety of Olagón is itself a salmagundi (a hodgepodge or mishmash, although it is very different way from the mixture heard on the University of Washington Chorale’s CD). Trueman tosses in a little of this, a little of that, and a little of the other thing in a work that is sometimes satirical, sometimes filled with social commentary, sometimes rather like a cabaret parody in an updated version of a Kurt Weill production. The music and sounds – Olagón contains both – are not of the eviscerate-the-ear type so common in contemporary music, and in fact some of the tunes are nearly hummable. But there is no single musical style here, and the entire extended production lacks both dramatic and musical cohesiveness – perhaps, in part, because bits and pieces of it were recorded over a year and a half in different locations and then assembled into the final product. There is everything here from down-home fiddlin’ to Satie-like piano dribblings to enthusiastic jazz – but even though four sections bear the title “Stirrings,” there is ultimately nothing particularly stirring about the music or the story. The presentation of the material is absolutely first-rate: in addition to extensive notes about the work, a full text is given in a separate booklet – which is more than many recordings of operas and other vocal works offer nowadays. Understanding where Olagón comes from and just what is included in it will go a great distance toward helping listeners enjoy the production; and much of it is indeed enjoyable musically. The story itself, though, is thin and formulaic, and even though the music is intermittently effective, 90-minutes-plus of it, in the absence of any particular cohesion, is quite a lot. To go back to the Weill comparison, Olagón is less likely to be of interest to those who know and love The Threepenny Opera than to those familiar with and enamored of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Der Silbersee. In other words, it is an interesting experience, but an uneven one: despite the frequent jazziness and bounce of much of the music, Olagón is ultimately far more likely to have esoteric than popular appeal.

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