November 01, 2018


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; Symphonieorchester des Beyerischen Rundfunks conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Samuel Adler: Choral Music. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Samuel Adler. Paraclete. $19.99.

Leo Sowerby: Sacred Songs. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Richard K. Pugsley. Paraclete. $29.95 (2 CDs).

     A Jew who converted to Catholicism for professional reasons, Gustav Mahler soon discovered within himself a deep resonance with his adopted religion. From his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) on, Mahler’s tremendously intimate yet exceptionally large-scale works deal again and again with the meaning of earthly life in the context of what may – or may not – come afterwards. Mahler, iconoclastic in so many things, never made a firm musical affirmation of any traditional life after death: even the “Resurrection,” whose words come mainly from Klopstock, contains emendations and additions by Mahler that skew traditional thinking in non-traditional directions. By his Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”), Mahler was looking at religion and faith (not the same thing, certainly not for him) in an exceptionally unusual way, combining the thousand-year-old words of the Veni, creator spiritus with the puzzling, problematical final scene of Goethe’s Faust. Where to go after this vast symphony/cantata? Mahler’s answer was: to a very different type of symphony/cantata, Das Lied von der Erde. There is no heaven here, despite the haunting final seven-times-repeated word ewig. And there is, indeed, little beyond the earthly, although earthbound life is rendered somewhat exotic (by Western standards) through settings of poems translated into German from a Chinese collection. Where the Symphony No. 8 is filled with choruses and depends on them for its overwhelming effects, Das Lied von der Erde has just two voices, a tenor and mezzo-soprano or baritone; it is therefore a less universal, more personal and more human-scale work than its immediate predecessor. First-rate performances of Das Lied von der Erde emphasize the universal human elements underlying poetic imagery whose lack of reality ranges from the fairy-tale delicacy of a jade-and-porcelain pavilion to the grotesquerie of an ape howling in a graveyard. The live BR Klassik recording featuring the Symphonieorchester des Beyerischen Rundfunks under Sir Simon Rattle gains its power from just this human connection. The two soloists come to this music from different backgrounds that, individually and together, make for an intriguing mixture: Stuart Skelton is a fine Wagnerian Heldentenor, accustomed to mythic figures in larger-than-life dramas, while Magdalena Kožená has a firm grounding in historical performance practices of music much older than Mahler’s and designed to connect with audiences in a very different way. The two find common ground under Rattle’s direction and the orchestra’s typically excellent playing: warm, firm, rhythmically assured and finely balanced. To Skelton fall the two different yet related drinking songs: the exceptionally dramatic opening Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, in which Earth’s sorrow is humanity’s sorrow and the thrice-repeated line, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod, contains all the fear and despair that religions are intended to ameliorate; and Der Trunkene im Frühling, a defiance of light, warmth and beauty in the name of looking inward but discovering within no respite from worldly care. Kožená sings the concluding Der Abschied, that ambiguous farewell (made from two very different poems conjoined by Mahler) of one friend to another and of at least one of the two to life and the world – in a journey ever outward to an uncertain destination. There is nothing explicitly religious or, indeed, even spiritual in Das Lied von der Erde, yet the whole work resonates, when handled as well as it is here, with the grand questions of this life and the life (if any) to come. These are the questions that preoccupied Mahler through so much of his work and that had become more pointed than ever when he received the diagnosis of the heart ailment that would kill him at age 50 – a diagnosis he got not long before creating Das Lied von der Erde.

     Mahler never fully integrated his thinking about Judaism and Christianity: his uncertainty, his attempts to understand and unite, are in large part responsible for the enormous power of his music. His constant striving stands in the starkest possible contrast to the tremendous peacefulness of Samuel Adler (born 1928), who was also born Jewish and who has spent much of his six-decade career exploring these two great religions’ common elements. Paraclete’s re-release of recordings of music composed by Adler during a 35-year time period offers a moving and unusually meaningful chance to contrast Adler’s form of acceptance and unification with Mahler’s constant turmoil and uncertainty. Mahler, who died in 1911, wrote a small number of works and used numerous then-new techniques in his music, while Adler, whose works number more than 400, uses those now-established approaches and many others in the service of choral pieces whose affirmation and plainspokenness are not to be confused with naïveté or emotional simplicity. Atonal and serial elements coexist in Adler with dance rhythms and folk tunes; yet Adler is quite capable of Handelian gestures, such as the opening of Psalm 74, and equally capable of unresolved dissonances in Verses from Isaiah for choir, organ, brass, and handbells. He calls for handbells also in the bright Let Us Rejoice, where the voices are solely those of a women’s choir; and he uses voices alone to communicate delicacy and appreciation of the divine in I Think Continually of Those. Unlike Mahler, Adler at times directly acknowledges his Judaism: L’chah Dodi and Mah Tovu use words from the Jewish liturgy. Adler is a strong conductor of his own music, his skill particularly noticeable in Transfiguration: An Ecumenical Mass, which contains the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei but not the Credo – a clear expression of universal love of and appreciation for the divine, the Latin words made deliberately non-exclusionary. This CD, originally released in 2004, was the first recording of Transfiguration; other works on the disc have been heard before and/or since, although there are few vocal ensembles capable of delivering this music with the skill and sheer beauty possessed by the 40-voice Gloriæ Dei Cantores. The disc certainly justifies the group’s title, “Singers for the Glory of God.”

     Gloriæ Dei Cantores is equally outstanding on another Paraclete re-release, this one a two-CD set from 1994 featuring music of Leo Sowerby (1895-1968). The music of Sowerby, which is very well-known in church circles and makes no particular attempt at ecumenicism, consists largely of music for choir and organ (this is especially so in his later works). It requires excellent blending of vocal sound, clarity of diction, and a clear understanding of the underlying emotions that Sowerby seeks to elicit. Gloriæ Dei Cantores provides just what this material needs, to especially fine effect in some of the more old-fashioned-sounding material here, such as Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and O God of Light from Songs of Faith and Penitence. In addition to his skill with vocal material, Sowerby had considerable abilities in instrumental music, which figures rather largely in his 500-plus works. His Canon, Chaconne, and Fugue for organ solo shows this quite clearly, as do Prelude on “Were You There” and three pieces of Festival Musick for organ and brass: Fanfare, Chorale, and Toccata on A.G.O. This re-release opens with one of Sowerby’s best-known works, Great Is the Lord, and contains a very well-chosen combination of vocal and instrumental material that shows, throughout two-and-a-half hours, why Sowerby was deemed the “dean of American church music” in the early-to-mid-20th-century. Sowerby’s forthright expressiveness has none of the intensity and conflict-ridden feeling of Mahler, none of the reaching out across longstanding religious barriers of Adler. Sowerby’s work is firmly rooted in tradition, certain in its assertiveness of and appreciation for the divine, uplifting and affirmative both vocally and instrumentally, and quite clearly the creation of a man who is sure of his own faith and eager to communicate that surety to all with voices to sing and ears to listen.

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