January 25, 2018


Winter’s Night. Skylark Vocal Ensemble. $20.

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 6—No Enemy but Winter and Rough Weather. Navona. $14.99.

Garth Baxter: Music for Voice and Piano. Navona. $14.99.

Matthew Burtner: The Ceiling Floats Away. EcoSono Ensemble. Ravello. $14.99.

     The dozen voices of Skylark Vocal Ensemble blend beautifully, seamlessly and thoughtfully on a new CD aimed at a very, very small audience indeed. To feel this disc’s full effect, a listener must first be familiar with little-known composer Hugo Distler (1908-1942) and specifically with his Christmas cantata, Weihnachtsgeschichte. Then the listener must know that the cantata contains seven variations on the medieval carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (“A Spotless Rose”). And then the listener can start to appreciate the way Skylark Vocal Ensemble presents all seven of those variations, interspersed with intimate and reflective music of many eras that relates in one way or another to Distler’s work. The relationship may come through hearing the setting of A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), or the plainchant Corde natus ex parentis (on which the German carol is based), or the never-before-recorded Salvatorem Expectamus by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), or one of the other pieces here. The disc is a 50-minute tour of one portion of one part of Distler’s output, including many works on similar or analogous themes from the distant past or from contemporary composers inspired by older music. The overall feeling of the disc is one of respectful thoughtfulness in a performance so burnished that it almost glows – listeners who simply want to hear beautiful a cappella singing will enjoy and admire what is offered here. However, the structure of the CD and its reason for being are so abstruse that the material is unlikely to reach out to a very large audience, if doing so was ever its intention. Material like this may be better presented in a live concert, with continual explanation of what the ensemble is doing by choosing and performing specific works – and explication as it does so – than as a CD.

     The sixth Navona release drawn from the Shakespeare Concert Series is also a rarefied production, its material gathered under a line from As You Like It. Some of the material here is by Joseph Summer, founder and executive director of the series, and there is also some vocal material by Walton and Korngold (among other things, two versions of Under the Greenwood Tree), Thomas Morley, Peter Warlock, Thomas Arne, Dominic Argento, and Donald Busarow. The compilation of songs from Shakespeare, recorded at various times from 2013 to 2016 and performed by a variety of singers, is kept interesting not only by its inherent variety but also by the different forms of vocal accompaniment. These include piano, harpsichord and, in one case, French horn plus piano; there is also a Summer setting of Beseech You, Sir, Be Merry for vocal quartet a cappella. There is no particular order to the material, no story line and no special reason for including specific composers’ work in this sequence rather than another. There are pleasures to be found throughout the CD, notably in the songs with harpsichord accompaniment (which lends the words a certain piquancy) and in some of the musical scene painting in the vocal lines, such as the falling melodic phrases of The Quality of Mercy. Like the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s disc, though, this is a CD best enjoyed for the sheer quality of the performances rather than for any particular thematic focus (although all the material relates to winter in one way or another). The arrangement of the songs is clearly one that has been carefully thought out, just as is the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s selection and sequence with its central attention to Distler. But listeners who are not privy to the live performances of the Shakespeare Concert Series and to Summer’s reasoning for assembling items in the specific way heard here will seek clarity of purpose in vain: they will do best just to sit back and enjoy some of the greatest English-language poetry ever written as set to music in a variety of styles by composers of varying predilections.

     The poetry on another Navona CD is drawn from multiple sources and is, inevitably, more of a mixed bag – but all the settings are by a single composer, Garth Baxter, and share a certain similar approach to the verbal material. All these pieces feature pianist Andrew Stewart as accompanist for tenor Peter Scott Drackley or one of three sopranos (Jessica Satava, Katherine Uhna Keem, Annie Gill). There is material here from a Baxter opera called Lily, which uses a libretto by Lisa VanAuken; from Baxter himself and his wife, after Willa Cather (Grandmother, Think Not I Forget); from Edna St. Vincent Millay (Afternoon on a Hill, Lament and Travel); from Linda Pastan (the four poems in Skywriting); and from others. Baxter’s musical settings, although they vary a bit with the themes of the words, have a certain similarity that quickly becomes familiar when listening to the disc, to such an extent that the use of a flute (played by Melissa Wertheimer) in a setting of Willa Cather’s April Twilight comes as a real surprise. All the singers handle the vocal lines with feeling and sensitivity, and Stewart’s accompaniment is quite good – he has a fine sense of the right times to bring the piano to the fore and to let it subside into the background. There is a kind of crepuscular feeling to much of the material on this disc, whether the music partakes more of folk song, art song, or old vocal forms (as in Three Madrigals). Some of the chosen words lead to intriguing sequences within a single piece, as when Four Views of Love starts with Yeats’ well-known When You Are Old and progresses eventually to Thomas Hardy’s A Thunderstorm in Town. Taken as a whole, the material is thoughtful and carefully thought-through, but never quite rises to the level of profundity, perhaps because the music helps elucidate the emotions behind the words but never really manages to deepen or enlarge upon those feelings.

     Matthew Burtner’s The Ceiling Floats Away, heard in a Ravello recording, is – to an even greater extent than the material from Skylark Vocal Ensemble and the Shakespeare Concert Series – a you-had-to-be-there work. Using poetry by Rita Dove, Burtner here produces a setting that employs a mixture of instruments (flute, clarinet, cello and piano) with technologically motivated and enhanced sound. Software called “Nomads” is used by the audience, through mobile devices, to provide the performers – and the listeners to this CD – with thoughts and responses to the 13 composed movements of the work. This is electronic audience participation taken to its logical extreme, but by definition it bypasses the audience hearing this recording, which therefore receives only part of Burtner’s creation – or only one version of it, much as occurs when listening to a recorded version of aleatoric music that locks in a single version that will never be repeated and that thus runs counter to the notion of aleatory in the first place. There is very little to say, really, about what is heard here: The Ceiling Floats Away sounds like many other contemporary experimental works in the way Burtner handles the words and the extrusions and intrusions of the instruments. The alternating “audience creation bridge” passages add nothing significant to Burtner’s own material, and the whole disc, most of whose tracks run only about a minute and whose totality is just 38 minutes or so, seems much, much longer. This is decidedly a case in which being present for a performance is really necessary to participate fully in it. Burtner’s created material for The Ceiling Floats Away is designed only as part of an experience, and it is the shared experience – including the audience contributing what passes for creativity of its own, rather than accepting the passivity of absorption of material presented to it – that is the whole reason for being of Burtner’s work. Without the chance to be a participant, a listener will likely find that Burtner’s creation loses whatever level of involvement it would have in the setting of a live performance.

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