January 31, 2019


Jan Jirásek: Choral Music. Bonifantes Boys Choir & Czech Soloist Consort conducted by Jan Míšek. Navona. $14.99.

I Carry Your Heart: Music for Chorus. University of South Dakota Chamber Singers conducted by David Holdhusen. Navona. $14.99.

     The words of the past often inspire the music of the present – in fact, this has been true for “present-day” music for hundreds of years. Czech composer Jan Jirásek (born 1955) takes homage to and reinterpretation of the past to new levels in his choral works on a new Navona CD. He does this by taking traditional spiritual texts from several different religions and juxtaposing them – having the words sung by boys’ choirs, thus implying the continuing relevance of the material and also turning it into a hope for continuity into the future. This is a lot of freight for music to bear, and the recording does not quite attain the sublimity and meaningfulness for which it strives, despite the very fine performances throughout and the skillful conducting of Jan Míšek. Part of the issue here is that Jirásek pays such careful tribute to the past that his music, as music, tends to seem mired in it. The first part of the three-section CD, Missa Propria, includes three settings from the traditional Latin mass – and while they are offered with suitable deference to the material and a good sense of writing for chorus, there is nothing particularly distinctive about them. The disc’s second section, Mondi Paralleli, is more interesting and gets to the heart of what Jirásek is trying to do. Here the composer starts by setting additional material from the Christian liturgy, then has the boys’ voices add these words to ones from Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. For example, the Latin Miserere and Jewish Avinu malkenu are combined in one section, the Latin Te Deum laudamus and Buddhist Om ah hum in another. These mixtures, however well-intentioned, come across as curiosities rather than strong arguments for a kind of multi-religious ecumenism. The elements of Mondi Paralleli are interesting and often partake of a more-contemporary feeling than those of Missa Propria, but the sincerity of Jirásek’s settings never translates into a strong philosophical/spiritual argument. The third part of the CD is called Tam, kde sláva nepřestává and speaks directly and specifically to Jirásek’s Czech heritage. Here the voices – accompanied at times by percussion – explore specifically Czech elements of religious life and how they are interwoven with the nation’s history and its current circumstances. For anything but a Czech audience, this is very rarefied material indeed, unlikely to have much impact or emotional resonance – although here, as throughout the CD, Jirásek’s very effective choral writing is a greater attraction than the religious and cultural points he is trying to make.

     There is no specific intellectual or emotional point being made by the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under David Holdhusen on another new Navona CD, this one titled I Carry Your Heart (the name of a work by Connor Koppin – one of the 18 tracks on the disc). This is a hodgepodge of a recording that is clearly intended to focus on the quality of the chorus and its capabilities in presenting music by a variety of contemporary composers. It is therefore a disc that will appeal to listeners interested in fine choral singing for its own sake – but the disparate approaches and topics of the music make the whole thing seem more than a trifle disconnected. There are some spiritual elements here, for example, not in traditional Mass sections but in Sicut Cervus, a psalm setting by Jonny Priano, whose Lullaby and Remember are also sung on the disc. Along similar lines are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer: Die Onse Vader, an Afrikaans version by Zander Fick, and Otche Nash, a Russian Orthodox version by Alexander Gretchaninoff. But these items are widely separated on the CD, appearing pretty much at random among pieces drawing on African-American spirituals and on works based on the poetry of e.e. cummings and Sara Teasdale. Languages vary pretty much at random, too, with, for example, Hebrew (Dirshu Adonai by Kenneth Lampl and Kirsten Lampl) immediately followed by Stacey Gibbs’ arrangement of Sit Down Servant, and the aforementioned Sicut Cervus preceded by another Gibbs arrangement, Ain’t That-a Rockin’. For listeners simply interested in the polished sound of the ensemble and the smooth, often quite lovely touches in certain of the tracks (e.g., solo voice, percussion, solo quartet, two violins), this recording will be a pleasant potpourri. It does not seem to aspire to be much more than that – and that will be enough for fans of fine choral singing. Listeners hoping for something better-organized or more clearly thematic, though, may be disappointed at the rather disjointed totality of the material.

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