April 11, 2019
(++++) OLD WORDS THAT STILL RING TRUE
Beethoven: Mass in C; Leonore Overture No. 3. Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Verdi: Requiem. Dinara Alieva, soprano; Olesya Petrova, mezzo-soprano; Francesco Meli, tenor; Dmitry Berosselskiy, bass; Bolshoi Theater Chorus and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. Delos. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Gregorian Chant: The Chants of Transfiguration. Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola. Paraclete. $16.99 (SACD).
William Mathias: The Doctrine of Wisdom and other choral works. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth Patterson. Paraclete. $18.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Choral Works, Volume II. Navona. $14.99.
Voices of Earth and Air, Volume II: Choral Music of Scott Solak, Jonathan David Little, Helen MacKinnon, L Peter Deutsch, Juli Nunlist, Daniel Morse, Peter Greve, and Whitman Brown. Navona. $14.99.
The longstanding words of faith and spiritual commitment may no longer be spoken in everyday discourse, but they have been sources of inspiration and comfort for centuries, and many composers during the last 500-plus years have found their own unique ways to harness the words’ power and expressiveness. Fifteen years before composing his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven turned his thoughts to a Mass setting for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, the last noble patron of Haydn and a man who undoubtedly expected something Haydn-like from the younger composer – who, after all, had studied with Haydn. Instead the prince got a work that he reviled, that was generally not well received, and that to this day is infrequently performed. Mariss Jansons’ new BR Klassik release, featuring a live performance from 2018, shows what a mistake this is: although lacking the scale, scope and drama of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s Mass in C is a thoughtful, expressive setting. The resignation mixed with hopefulness in the Kyrie sets the scene for a Mass that is, on the whole, rather more upbeat than might be expected. There is serenity rather than anguish at the heart of the Mass in C, an expectation that God will do the right thing for His sinful children rather than a plea begging Him to do so. There are some effective, dramatic Beethovenian touches here, with numerous sforzandi and unexpected syncopations, and with musical/textual events such as the reappearance of the pain of the Agnus dei just before the final Dona nobis pacem. The Mass in C is moving and uplifting, perhaps even more so in a concert setting – where parts of it were first performed – than in a church. Jansons leads it forcefully as needed and tenderly when appropriate, and the fine vocal soloists and excellent chorus contribute to a highly effective performance. The Mass is paired, rather oddly, with a much earlier performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, from 2004 – another live recording, and a well-paced, strongly accented and altogether accomplished presentation, but a work that does not fit particularly well with the Mass in C. Both the mass and the overture are, however, given readings that are worth hearing on their own.
A Mass of a different kind, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, gets a potent, vigorous performance under Yuri Temirkanov in a new Delos release. This is the most operatic of all Requiems in the classical canon, and indeed sounds more like an opera than a church work most of the time: Verdi heightens everything with immense skill, from the pleadings for mercy for the dead to the terrifying (and recurring) music of the Last Trumpet and the Day of Judgment. It is almost impossible not to be swept into Verdi’s operatic sound world when hearing this music, whose striking intensity and heartfelt (if at times almost saccharine) emotionalism come straight from the operatic stage. Temirkanov and his singers and musicians offered this live December 2017 performance in memory of famed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017), and that memorialization no doubt contributes to the intensity of this reading and the exceptional emotion with which the soloists and chorus deliver the material. It is easy to argue that Verdi’s Requiem is overdone and even somewhat bombastic, but when performed with strength and passion, it works remarkably well, its excesses well-balanced by the sincerity of feeling underlying them. And this two-CD set – the performance is just a bit too long for a single disc – certainly comes across as a sincere tribute, and a highly meaningful one. Temirkanov is an uneven conductor and at times an unpredictable one, but when he is at his best, when he is strongly involved in the music he is presenting, he digs deeply into himself and marshals his forces with skill and understanding. This piece, in this context, clearly meant a lot to Temirkanov, who lavishes it with care in phrasing, emphasis and orchestral balance, while allowing the very fine soloists and excellent Bolshoi Theater Chorus to proclaim and declaim the words with strength and sincerity. So dramatic is Verdi’s Requiem that its over-the-top passages can swamp its quieter, more-thoughtful ones, but Temirkanov and his forces, perhaps mindful of this performance as an actual memorial concert, balance the work’s bluster with its warmth, to very fine and wholly convincing effect.
The strong and wide-ranging sacred and spiritual music of the 19th century, by Beethoven and Verdi and many others, builds on a tradition hundreds of years older, one traceable to the Gregorian chant of a thousand years ago, as modified many times over the centuries. Monophonic and unaccompanied, the chant was used in worship for hundreds of years as a means of spiritual elevation and affirmation of belief – a use far distant in purpose as well as time period from a piece such as Verdi’s Requiem. Hearing real Gregorian chant in modern times is a distinctly salutary experience, as well as a rare one: there simply are not many choruses, much less professional choirs, that know how to handle this a cappella music and can do so effectively. Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola is a very happy exception, as may be heard on a number of Paraclete recordings, including The Chants of Transfiguration, originally released in 2006. The CD is divided into three parts called “Prophecy—Vision,” “Manifestation—The Moment of Transfiguration,” and “Promise of Our Personal Transfiguration,” and the chants within each section are designed to expand on the section’s title and elucidate (literally bring light to) the joy and hopefulness of Christ’s transfiguration and the promise of one’s own, made to each individual Christian. Organ works at the start and end of the CD provide a framework within which the individual chants – ranging in length from less than a minute to nearly eight minutes – can rise and proclaim tidings of great joy and promise. This is meditative music in the best sense, not intended as “background music” but as an aid to focusing on one’s soul, its potential for salvation, and the wonders of Christ as Savior. The singers are uniformly excellent, their delivery heartfelt without being in any way overdone. Certainly the emotions expressed here continued to be felt in much later music – consider, for just one example, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony – but grandiose later works, for all their power, lack the directness and simplicity that make Gregorian chant so immediately and ceaselessly appealing.
This is not to say that the members of Gloriæ Dei Cantores sing only Gregorian chant. Their skill is also brought usefully and impressively to bear on modern music that offers some of the same uplift as the old chants, albeit in different musical language. A Paraclete release originally from 1998, featuring the sacred choral music of Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992), is one fine example among many. The disc includes two longer settings, a Missa Brevis (1973) and Rex Gloriæ (1980), as well as eight anthems of various types – of which the longest, Veni Sancte Spiritus for choir, organ, two trumpets and percussion, is particularly impressive. If traditional Gregorian chant focuses mainly on lifting humans up to a fuller appreciation of God, Mathias’ works are more concerned with celebrating the existence of God and the wonders of faith. Mathias sometimes paid special tribute to his own heritage: The Lord Is My Shepherd, the familiar 23rd Psalm, is heard on this disc in Welsh. Most of the time, though, Latin more than sufficed for what Mathias sought to communicate, although he – like other composers from Great Britain – used English as well in some settings. Interestingly, Mathias’ most-famous work, the one heard by the most people by far, is not included here: it is Let the People Praise Thee, O God, which Mathias composed for the July 1981 royal wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales and which reached a TV audience estimated at a billion people. Yet that anthem was something of an outlier among Mathias’ creations, most of which are more modest in scale – including The Doctrine of Wisdom (1990) for choir and organ, which gives this disc its title. Mathias’ music, often joyful, typically seeks to reach out to people as individuals rather than to any wide-scale audience. On this (+++) recording, the singers of Gloriæ Dei Cantores give Mathias’ music all the beauty and spiritual uplift that they can, confirming him as a very solid composer of 20th-century sacred music and, in particular, a fine communicator of the joyful elements of religious belief and practice.
Even in the 21st century, as forms of musical communication continue to evolve and change, the old words of faith have resonance for some composers, such as Michael G. Cunningham. A new (+++) Navona release, although not formally labeled “Volume II” of Cunningham’s choral music, is in fact a continuation of an earlier one, from 2016. But several of the works heard here were recorded even earlier than those on the Mathias disc: all six are live performances, and they date to 1975, 1979, 1980, 1988, 1997 and 2003. Like Mathias, Cunningham sometimes writes music decidedly intended for uplift, such as New Beginnings, a work for full choir with horns and percussion that is highly celebratory in tone. At other times, Cunningham seeks quieter and lighter spirituality, as in The Annunciation, whose dissonant piano opening clearly marks it as a work of modern times. Also here are brief and relatively straightforward settings of The Lord’s Prayer and The Prayer of St. Francis. The meatiest material on the CD, though, is found in two multi-part works. One is Cunningham’s Seraphic Mass, essentially a Missa Breve in which the familiar Latin gives way to a setting in English for chorus and organ. Despite the decision to use English for the text, this is a generally conservative and tonal setting, and one in which the organ plays a considerable role. Cunningham includes The Lord’s Prayer (in a setting different from the standalone one on the CD) as part of this work, placing it before the concluding Agnus Dei, here written as Lamb of God. Although short – only 11 minutes in all – Seraphic Mass clearly communicates the seriousness with which Cunningham takes the elements of the Mass. Even more substantial than Seraphic Mass is the six-movement The Holy Spirit, written for chorus with percussion and tubas – an unusual and unusually powerful accompaniment for the voices. The vocal settings here are more modern-sounding and more complex to sing than those in Seraphic Mass, and the work as a whole seems to reach more strongly for individuation of expression. Perhaps because he is not here bound by the strictures of a Mass setting, Cunningham gives the music, vocal and instrumental alike, considerably more freedom and more interesting sounds than in the other works on this disc. The seriousness of the material is never in doubt, but there is enough that is unusual in the writing and presentation – including one movement with a baritone solo, one featuring a solo tenor, and a short instrumental Interlude – to make The Holy Spirit the most unusual work on this recording and the most interesting to hear. The performers, all from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, handle the material well, despite occasional vocal imperfections. Like the Mathias recording, this is a limited-interest CD, but one that fans of Cunningham and of modern iterations of longstanding religious texts will find suitably edifying.
There is certainly inspiring material to be found as well on a (+++) Navona recording of contemporary choral works that does officially have “Volume II” in its title. A followup to a release from 2013, this disc offers eight very varied settings of sacred texts or of words intended to put listeners in touch with their higher beings or better selves. Although the whole presentation is better-integrated than are most anthology CDs, the differences among the pieces are considerable, with the result that most listeners will likely find some admirable, some less so, and some off-putting. The exact ones in each category will, however, vary. Scott Solak’s Ave Maria is tonal and straightforward; it would fit well into a collection of earlier music of the same type. Jonathan David Little’s Crucifixus has a more-modern sound and unusual construction, being written for triple choir in 12 parts, plus organ. Helen MacKinnon’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo is an a cappella setting that starts simply and beautifully, with lovely harmonies, then moves to a much more complexly harmonized and strongly accentuated section than would be expected in this music – followed by a melodically complex section that challenges the performers but lies well in a listener’s ear. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by L Peter Deutsch is something else altogether, using a Japanese folk tale as told, in English, by Ursula Le Guin, as the text for a work in five vocal parts that includes a central percussion section. The piece is clever, perhaps too much so, drawing considerable attention to its own cleverness. Hearing its words after the more-traditional ones of the works earlier on the disc is a bit jarring – but may be pleasantly so for listeners especially interested in contemporary choral music. Also here are two excerpts from Spells by Juli Nunlist: Spell of Sleep and Spell of Creation. They are evocative, declamatory choral pieces. They are followed by Daniel Morse’s Nachtlied, a setting of a work by Austrian poet Georg Trakl. This is a quiet, very breathy-sounding setting for voices and electronics of a poem filled with still images: “the silence in stone,” “speechless over bluish waters,” “silent mirrors of truth,” and so on. Next come the seven short songs of Peter Greve’s Give Us Peace, for organ and mixed choir. Latin, Russian, Hebrew and Arab texts, which follow an introductory organ solo, are used to produce a kind of plea for coexistence. And then, at the end of the CD, there is a rather sweet and soothing setting of Psalm 23 by Whitman Brown, returning to the mood of the earlier part of the disc in what is surely intended as a kind of spiritual narrative arc. The varied elements of the music on the CD make the whole presentation intriguing, although the differing focuses and styles of the eight composers result in a somewhat scattered rather than fully integrated impression of their disparate approaches to somewhat similar material.