October 04, 2018


Gordon Getty: Choral Works. Netherlands Radio Choir and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Alexander Kastalsky: Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes; Doors of Thy Mercy; From My Youth; Blessed Are They. The Clarion Choir conducted by Steven Fox. Naxos. $12.99.

Songs from Chicago: Music of Ernst Bacon, Florence Price, John Alden Carpenter, Margaret Bonds, and Louis Campbell-Tipton. Thomas Hampson, baritone; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano. Cedille. $16.

Kamyar Mohajer: Five Songs, Based on Poetry of Hafez; Prelude; Reng; String Quartet; Ballade in C. Navona. $14.99.

     Although Gordon Getty’s commitment to traditional tonality is scarcely unique among contemporary composers, the depth of expressiveness that he extracts from his vocal music – in operas as well as songs – is unusual, and is heightened by his sparing use of atonal elements in a soundscape that remains for the most part firmly tonal. The Getty choral works on a new PentaTone SACD, which are quite well-sung by the Netherlands Radio Choir and are played with sensitive involvement by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, show just how firmly Getty (born 1933) remains in the grip of tonality for expressive purposes. And they show how well Getty continues to use musical means that many contemporary composers deem irremediably old-fashioned for the very fine (and, yes, old-fashioned) purpose of connecting with modern audiences through expressive presentation of poetry of the past. There are three of Getty’s own works on this disc, but the balance of the material comes from poets who are, in the main, well-known – and whose works have been set many times before. They are Lord Byron, Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Keats, John Masefield, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Sara Teasdale. Getty’s handling of Cynara by Dowson – probably the least-known of the group – contrasts interestingly with the setting of the same poem, for baritone and orchestra, by Delius. The earlier composer emphasized the ethereality of the poem, which famously contains the line, “gone with the wind,” and Delius’ setting may also be taken to refer to the brief life of the poet, who died at age 32 in 1900. Getty’s choral setting, in contrast, makes the words more emphatic and leaves the tone painting to the instruments. That approach is, in fact, a common technique of Getty, reflected in the care with which he varies the orchestration of the pieces here. The Old Man in the Night, for example, is an elaborate and extended work that calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, celesta, strings and two percussionists, while The Old Man in the Morning (which is much shorter and follows immediately on this disc) requires only English horn, harp and strings. All the settings here are handled with sensitivity by James Gaffigan, who allows Getty considerable expressiveness without a descent into the maudlin – an approach that works particularly well in Getty’s arrangement of the traditional Shenandoah, which here has longing approaching pathos but does not feel overdone. The determinedly old-fashioned feeling of Getty’s choral works gives them an increased sense of connection with the time in which the words were written, and even Getty’s own poems seem to speak as much of the past as of the present in which they are, no pun intended, presented.

     If Getty’s work is tied to no specific time, that of Alexander Kastalsky on a new Naxos CD is linked to a very specific one. Kastalsky (1856-1926) was a student of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev, and his compositions were in the field of church music, for which he is still remembered in Russia even though he is little-known elsewhere. Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes (1917) is a memorial to those who died fighting in World War I, and its history is a touch complex: originally for chorus and organ, it was enlarged by Kastalsky into a full-scale Requiem for chorus and orchestra and intended in that form for concert performance. Then the composer created an a cappella version, the one heard here, which was designed for use in Russian Orthodox churches. Indeed, the work as a whole follows the structure of an Orthodox memorial service, and its sincerity is never in doubt in the performance by the Clarion Choir under Steve Fox. The chorus is a small one, with only 28 members, but this world première recording has fullness of sound that befits the solemnity of the music (which was recorded in a church). Memory Eternal is complemented by three short religious works composed earlier by Kastalsky, and these too are world première recordings: Doors of Thy Mercy (1897), From My Youth (1905), and Blessed Are They (1900). This is a narrow-interest disc of well-sung choral music from a specific tradition and a specific time period, interesting in particular for Kastalsky’s incorporation of ancient chants into Memory Eternal and for his solid use of traditional polyphonic techniques.

     The main interest in a very well-sung Cedille recording called Songs from Chicago is in the varying ways in which different composers with Chicago connections set words by the same poets. The fluidity and careful enunciation of baritone Thomas Hampson, and the well-modulated backup pianism of Kuang-Hao Huang, combine to bring out both the similarities and the differences in the settings of Walt Whitman’s words by Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and Louis Campbell-Tipton (1877-1921) – the latter considerably more acerbic than the expansive and warm settings by the later-born composer. Also here are three different treatments of Langston Hughes poems, by Florence Price (1888-1953), John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972). Price uses rippling piano accompaniments to complement the words; Carpenter plays words and music against each other in contrasting rhythms and colors; Bonds prefers piano introductions that set a scene and mood before the words even begin – an approach that is particularly effective in the darkly moody opening to The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Although the CD primarily uses the words of Whitman and Hughes, it concludes with Carpenter’s setting of poems by Rabindranath Tagore – six poems with music, plus readings as introduction and epilogue. There is a pleasant simplicity and naïveté to these poems’ expressiveness, even in On the day when death will knock at thy door, and Carpenter’s gentle accompaniments accentuate the emotions as effectively as they do Hughes’, albeit in very different style. Hampson’s rich voice and careful attention to pronouncing the words clearly without ever appearing to declaim or lose the sense of poetry produce performances that will captivate and enchant listeners whose musical taste runs to art songs – with or without a connection to any particular time period or geographical location.

     The voice is that of a soprano (Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai) and the type of poetry very different on a new Navona CD featuring music by Kamyar Mohajer. Five Songs, Based on Poetry of Hafez (2014), sung in Persian and using words by a 13th-century poet who is well-known in what is now Iran, sound exotic in Western terms and are filled with references to music, nature, and, in particular, wine – which appears to be partly the everyday beverage and partly symbolic. Karolina Rojahn’s piano opens the songs with mood-setting that somewhat resembles that of Bonds in her Hughes songs, but Mohajer handles the words quite differently, sometimes having them sung with no accompaniment at all, sometimes presenting them with piano accompaniment that appears largely unrelated to the words’ flow and even interferes with it. The remainder of this disc is instrumental and will be of greatest interest to listeners seeking an understanding, through music, of some of the cultural imperatives and beliefs of ancient Persia and modern Iran. Mohajer greatly respects Bach, so here is a Prelude (2013) for violin (Kay Stern), viola (Susan Freier), and cello (Stephen Harrison). He has a strong sense of traditional Persian dance rhythms, and brings them into play in Reng (2008/2017) for wind quintet (Jeannine Dennis, flute; Alayne Gyetvai, oboe; Taylor Jordan, clarinet; Margarite Waddell, French horn; Nathaniel Echols, bassoon). He is also comfortable bringing limited Persian sensibilities to Western forms, whether for solo piano (Rojahn) in Ballade in C (2013) or in a String Quartet (2012) that is essentially classical in its four-movement structure (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). The non-vocal material here is considerably more conventional than Five Songs, using the instruments in traditional ways and expressing emotions in a manner that will be quite familiar to most Western listeners: the quartet, for example, presents repeated contrasts between slower and emotionally darker sections and lighter, speedier material. Many contemporary composers combine Western musical traditions with material drawn from other cultures, but usually within the same pieces. Mohajer, on the other hand, seems to straddle cultures by remaining almost entirely in one for some pieces, then moving almost all the way to another for other works. The approach is unusual, and the result is that listening to this disc is an experience of moving between very different sound worlds rather than trying to absorb individual works that attempt to combine disparate effects.

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