February 14, 2019


Richard Thompson: The Mask in the Mirror—A Chamber Opera. The Sanaa Opera Project conducted by Stephen Tucker. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Sueños de España: Spanish Art Songs. Shudong Braamse, soprano; Teresa Ancaya, piano; Robert Phillips, guitar. Navona. $14.99.

Laments: Choral Music of Pablo Casals, Patricia Van Ness, Darius Milhaud, Thomas Tallis, and Daniel E. Gawthrop. Renaissance Men (Eric Christopher Perry, tenor and conductor; Alexander Nishibun, Kilian Mooney, and Garry McLinn, tenors; Peter Schilling, Will Prapestis, Brian Church, and Dominick Matsko, baritones; Benjamin Pfeil, bass-baritone; Anthony Burkes Garza, bass). Navona. $14.99.

Palestrina: Missa Tu Es Petrus and other sacred works. The Choir of Saint Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Listeners interested in some unusual vocal repertoire, handled expertly by first-rate singers, will find a wide spectrum of voices and considerable variety in their use on three new Navona recordings. The Mask in the Mirror makes impressive use of primary sources, in the form of excerpts from personal writings, to tell the story of early 20th-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (whose middle name is here, oddly, misspelled “Lawrence”) and Alice Ruth Moore, the woman he married and never divorced even though the two split up. Dunbar, the son of illiterate freed slaves, is a seminal figure in American poetry written by blacks, and Moore, who was herself a writer, was college-educated but never attained Dunbar’s commercial success. She was also ashamed of being illegitimate and had a longstanding disgust with darker-skinned members of her race – describing herself as a Louisiana Creole to create the self-image she looked for with her coffee-colored skin. Dunbar, ill for many years with tuberculosis and then consumed by alcoholism after liquor was recommended to help him cope with the disease, died in 1906, before his 34th birthday; Moore was longer-lived (1875-1935) but never as prominent as her sometime husband. Composer/librettist Richard Thompson weaves the operatic story of these two would-be literary lions into a three-act chamber opera that includes spoken dialogue as well as sung elements that are closer to Sprechstimme than to arias. Scenes look at the initial contact between Dunbar (Cameo Humes) and Moore (Angel Owens); the literary critic Dean Howells (John Polhamus), whose positive response to Dunbar became the basis of Dunbar’s reputation; and various interactions between Dunbar and Moore and involving them, separately or together, with various family members and acquaintances. This is a content-driven opera rather than a musically propelled one: the music is fine, but there is nothing particularly distinguished about it – no attempt to use tunes of the protagonists’ time, to include African-American melodic references, or otherwise to relate the musical material to the story. Therefore, listeners will inexorably focus on the words spoken and sung by the characters – and Thompson’s music is designed to make that focus possible. Unfortunately for this approach, the words are not especially distinguished – most come from letters exchanged by the protagonists – and while The Mask in the Mirror contains some bits of Dunbar’s poetry (including perhaps his best-known line, “I know why the caged bird sings”), it comes across more as a play with music than as a fully realized opera. The performers are fine, and when the music does pick up, as in a scene in a Harlem bar, it is attractive. But the words are for the most part simply ordinary: “Paul, you’re back from London already. Yes, to celebrate my latest published book.” As for the Dunbar-Moore romance, there does not seem to be very much to it: Dunbar was serially unfaithful and Moore seems to have wanted to attach herself to someone who was a better writer than she, whatever the emotional cost. There is ultimately not all that much interesting about The Mask in the Mirror except for people who know Dunbar’s work and the Dunbar-Moore story already, and are interested in hearing it surrounded by (if not exactly set to) music.

     Chinese soprano Shudong Braamse might seem a curious choice for a CD containing 19 tracks of Spanish songs – all but one of them love songs – but Braamse shows herself quite equal to the material, and her pronunciation, if not idiomatic, is more than satisfactory for this mostly lightweight material. The CD’s title actually translates not as “Spanish Art Songs” but as “Spanish Dreams,” and there is a certain dreamlike quality to several of the songs here – as well as a certain sameness both of topic and of music, resulting in a nicely sung recording that is distinctly monochromatic. There is one religious song here, a traditional Ave Maria set by Juan Cantó Francés, but all the other songs are distinctly secular – even when they contain religious references, as in Amor sin Esperanza by Manuel Fernández Caballero, in which the singer addresses “blessed Virgin Mary” for the sole purpose of requesting, “Make him love me or allow me to die.” There is a lot of this sort of traditional and naïve heartsickness and wishing for death if love is not readily available in these songs, and little to choose among them in terms of how well the composers express the longings. Teresa Ancaya provides sensitive accompaniment and occasional touches of attractive piano-only figurations, as in Rosa by Mariano Obiols Tramullas. And some of the songs’ words are unusual, as in A Mi Nazarena by Antonio Reparaz, which begins, “Although you are a nun, I would give anything for just one kiss from your lips.” But Braamse handles all the texts essentially the same way – justifiable because of the general similarity of the emotions expressed, but leading rapidly to a feeling of familiarity with the material that soon turns into over-familiarity. The occasional use of Robert Phillips’ guitar for accompaniment, as in A la Incredulidad by Francisco de Borja Tapia and O Sí o No by Mariano Nicasio Rodríguez de Ledesma, provides some welcome respite from the voice-and-piano sounds that dominate the disc. The sameness of vocal quality and musical approach throughout the CD will please fans of Braamse and listeners who may not know her yet but are interested in hearing yet another of the many fine up-and-coming soprano voices now emerging from all parts of the world. The strictly musical content of Sueños de España is thin, but the presentation is skillful, and the material is presented with sensitivity and as much depth as it can be given.

     Listeners who prefer massed male voices to individual female ones, or who enjoy the contrast between the two types of vocalizing – and who want to hear religious material intended to uplift rather than serving secular concerns – will find much to like in a CD featuring the vocal ensemble called Renaissance Men. The material on the disc is by no means confined to the Renaissance, with only Thomas Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah (as arranged by group members Eric Christopher Perry and Anthony Burnes Garza) dating to that time period. But this vocal ensemble’s fine blending, purity of tone and heartfelt expressiveness fit all the works on the disc, whatever their provenance. The Tallis is the emotional center of this recording, its five vocal parts split here among 10 men so as to reinforce the words crying out at the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. This is very serious music indeed, and the performers lead up to it with a series of somber works: Pablo Casals’ O Vos Omnes (arranged and darkened by Clifford G. Richter: the original is for mixed chorus); Psalm 3 by Patricia Van Ness; and Darius Milhaud’s Psaume 121, a very interesting setting that makes its emotional point partly through use of bitonality. The Milhaud is short, running less than three-and-a-half minutes, but is quite challenging to sing, and the high quality of the performance here is a high point of the CD (which itself is on the short side, running only about 47 minutes). The Tallis follows the Milhaud and makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. Then, concluding the disc, there is The Promises of Isaiah the Prophet, written by Daniel E. Gawthrop specifically as a response to the Tallis (the work begins in the tonality in which the Tallis ends). Gawthrop makes an interesting, if rather academic, point in this work, proffering a richness of sound to go with the essentially upbeat text and to contrast strongly with the spare, austere Tallis setting of the deeply troubled words of Jeremiah. Listeners with a strong affinity for Biblical material will find the Tallis-Gawthrop comparison and contrast fascinating, although more-casual listeners will likely get less from it. On this CD as on the one featuring Braamse, a great deal of the attraction lies in the quality of the voices and the expressiveness with which the musical material is delivered – whether that material is essentially quotidian (Braamse) or intended to elevate (Renaissance Men).

     The focus is entirely on the Renaissance and entirely uplifting on a beautifully sung and very well-recorded MSR Classics CD of some of Palestrina’s sacred music, performed by the Choir of Saint Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. The ensemble’s name evokes Europe and a pastoral location, but in fact this is a New York City choir. Shuler has directed the ensemble for 30 years, and every one of the singers responds to him with intensity and flexibility in equal measure – individually and as a group. So seamless is the interweaving of voices that the massed choir sounds almost like a single voice with exceptional range. The highlight of the disc is Missa Tu Es Petrus, a so-called “parody mass” – “parody” in this context meaning simply that the work was put together from previously existing music rather than composed anew. Dating to 1572, Missa Tu Es Petrus is based on a motet of the same name – with which the CD opens, providing listeners with a perfect chance to hear the original material from which the mass was constructed. This is a rather arcane pleasure, to be sure, and indeed, a full CD of Palestrina can be as much of a chore for some listeners as it is a delight to others. This is certainly not material to be taken lightly, even though the vocal scoring is thin by modern standards: Missa Tu Es Petrus calls only for two sopranos, alto, tenor and two basses. The half-hour mass is complemented by an additional half-hour of Palestrina’s sacred music, including not only the motet underlying the mass but also Sicut Cervus | Sitivit Anima Mea, Caro Mea, Canite Tuba | Rorate Caeli, Improperium Expectavit, and Surrexit Pastor Bonus | Et Enim Pascha Nostrum. The choir sounds quite comfortable with the Latin texts, whose specific meaning is not really needed for modern listeners to understand and respond to the high spiritual goals that Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) had in composing these works. The shorter motets are self-contained, but the seven sections of Missa Tu Es PetrusKyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei 1 and 2 – unite into a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Modern Catholics, and other listeners of a religious bent, will find the exploration of multiple moods easier to comprehend than will those of a more-secular inclination. And it does help to have some comprehension of the text to enjoy the way in which Palestrina interweaves restrained and tender touches with an overall feeling of quiet joy. Shuler and his choir convey the subtleties of the material, in the mass and motets alike, with warmth and precision; the antiphonal nature of Missa Tu Es Petrus comes through to particularly fine effect. Certainly this is not music for a broad audience; indeed, it reaches out even less far now that the Catholic Church has largely abandoned worship in Latin. But for those who still love that language and the music that Palestrina built around it with consummate skill, this recording will be an essay in sacred beauty.

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