May 30, 2019


Falla: El amor brujo; El retablo de Maese Pedro. Esperanza Fernández, cantaora; Alfredo García, baritone; Jennifer Zetlan, soprano; Jorge Garza, tenor; Perspectives Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $12.99.

Petr Eben: Liturgical Chants; Four Choruses on Latin Texts; Catonis Moralia; Ten Poetic Duets; About Swallows and Girls. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

American Reflections: 20th and 21st Century Choral Music. St. Charles Singers conducted by Jeffrey Hunt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music IV—Symphony No. 11, “Retourner”; Hypocrisy—Orchestral Suite. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Although generally deemed the greatest Spanish composer of the first part of the 20th century, Manuel de Falla remains something of an acquired taste outside his homeland. Really first-rate performances of his music, such as those led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez on a new Naxos CD, help explain why. The forms in which Falla wrote his best music were not the ones familiar elsewhere in Europe or around the world, and many of his works retain a kind of provincial tint that can be charming if viewed from one angle but limiting if seen from another. The original 1915 version of El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”), for example, which is the one that Gil-Ordóñez uses for his performance with the Perspectives Ensemble, requires a theater orchestra rather than a full-fledged symphonic one – and a voice quality with which few outside Spain are likely familiar, that of the flamenco singer or cantaora. Esperanza Fernández not only offers unusual vocal qualities in her performance but also uses Spanish pronunciation that is outside the norm – for example, the “s” is not pronounced in the middle of most words, lending them an exotic sound that is not readily placeable in any particular region. On top of that, El amor brujo is based on legends and beliefs of the Romani, still sometimes called Gypsies; and it includes spoken material as well as sung elements and purely instrumental ones, thus having much in common with the zarzuela – itself a form with which most classical-music listeners are at best mildly familiar. In light of all this, the color, clarity and conviction that Fernández and Gil-Ordóñez bring to this performance are quite remarkable, and the ways in which Falla has the cantaora delineate different elements of the story are surprising and intriguing – for example, the “Song of the Will-o’-the-Wisp” sounds nothing like the rest of the vocal material. Hearing this version of El amor brujo, which of course includes the famous Ritual Fire Dance but places it in context, is a truly fascinating experience. So is listening to the other work here, the slightly later (1923) El retablo de Maese Pedro. Once again, Falla places cleverness and an interesting concept at the service of a story whose format is not one with which most listeners will be familiar. This is, first of all, a puppet presentation – the title translates as “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” – and, second of all, a tribute to Cervantes’ esteemed novel about Don Quixote, in the second part of which appears the scene that Falla illustrates by combining words and music. Knowledge of the picaresque novel is extremely helpful, if not 100% necessary, to understand what Falla produces: this is one of many scenes in which Don Quixote misinterprets reality because of his devotion to the long-gone days of the knights errant, resulting in turmoil for those with whom Don Quixote interacts even though he himself remains oblivious. As Falla proffers the material, Master Peter presents a puppet show about the rescue of an abducted Christian noblewoman from the Moors; the action is narrated by a boy (sung by a soprano) who is periodically interrupted by Master Peter or Don Quixote, until the latter loses all touch with reality and believes the puppets are real – so he joins in the “rescue,” with highly destructive (but quite amusing) results. Falla’s orchestration here is very clever, including a pedal harp as well as a harpsichord, both of them intended to make matters sound as if they took place long in the past. There are also strings, flute, two oboes, English horn, and clarinet – a wind-focused small orchestral complement that fits the material very well. And here as in El amor brujo, Gil-Ordóñez leads the ensemble with verve, understanding, and a fine sense of the subtle ways in which Falla evoked olden times while incorporating up-to-date (for the 1920s) harmonies. The music is charming; indeed, the whole of El retablo de Maese Pedro is filled with charm. Yet also like El amor brujo, this is a work of somewhat rarefied appeal: unless listeners know what it is about and where the material comes from, its full effect is diminished, especially when heard on CD. Many of Falla’s pieces, certainly including the two here, cry out for use of the visual elements that they were created to include. As fine as these performances are, they would be even better if they were part of fully staged versions, which would do even more than this disc can to bring Falla some of the praise that he is due.

     The blending of old and new, albeit in a very different way, is also a feature of a new Navona CD featuring the Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by its music director, Jiří Skopal. The CD includes several works in which Petr Eben (1929-2007) explores anonymous medieval material (Four Choruses on Latin Texts) or reaches back even farther in time for words to set (Catonis Moralia, structured to include Baroque dance-suite elements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Air and Gigue). There is a very strong and distinct spiritual flavor to these pieces, and also to the five Liturgical Chants, which focus on Psalm 29 (“Give unto the Lord, o ye mighty ones”) and feature organ accompaniment by František Vaníček. Indeed, these three works, in which the purity of the lovely massed voices of the young singers is ever-present, have all the effect of sitting at a traditional church service – an experience that some listeners will find very congenial indeed, although others may find it somewhat off-putting, especially if listening to the three pieces straight through. Staying with the CD after the third work, however, leads to a definite change of material, if not one of tonal beauty. This is because Ten Poetic Duets includes not only the chorus but also piano (played by Michal Chrobák) and, in one song, soloist Barbora Novotná. These are brief settings of Czech-language poetry by Vítězslav Nezval (1900-1958), and here Eben allows himself more-modern harmonies and pianistic effects that sometimes counter the vocal elements instead of supporting and underlining them as the organ does in Liturgical Chants. There is considerable uplift to be had in these miniatures as well, but it is different in kind from what Eben offers in his Latin settings. The Nezval material is sincere but slight – more evanescent than effervescent – but complements the Latin settings nicely. This (+++) CD concludes with another work in Czech, and one that is in some ways the most interesting on the disc. About Swallows and Girls sets nine Bohemian, Moravian, and Silesian folk songs – brief pieces, ranging from a minute in length to two-and-a-half – and here the naïveté of the material and the sentiments fits the pure, beautifully melded voices of the choir to perfection. The themes are pastoral and mildly oriented toward love, but the words scarcely matter in these gentle, sweet little songs as presented by young singers whose repertoire ranges from the angelic to the down-to-earth. Everything on this disc is treated in much the same light and lovely way, and all the works have a consistent sound, even though the choir members surely changed significantly during the time in which these pieces were performed: the recording dates range from 1995 to 2007.

     The words do matter – quite a bit, in fact – on a new (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring the St. Charles Singers conducted by Jeffrey Hunt. But here as with the Jitro Czech Girls Choir, the focus seems to be more on the singers than on what they sing: like the CD in Latin and Czech, this one in English is all about the sound of the voices and the way that sound adapts and adjusts to different material. The songs, in terms of their topics, are certainly multifaceted, including a number of folk and spiritual ones: Shenandoah, Long Time Ago, She’s Like the Swallow, Great God Almighty, and Bright Morning Stars, plus the traditional Shaker tune, I Hunger and Thirst. Interspersed with these works are songs from as far back as the 19th century (arranged in the 20th) and ones written as recently as the 21st. The longest work here, the five-song cycle Walden Pond (to words by Thoreau), is by Dominick Argento (born 1927). Then there are single songs: Water Night by Eric Whitacre (born 1970); Dirait-On by Morten Lauridsen (born 1942); Beautiful River by Robert Lowry (1826-1899); Why the Caged Bird Sings by Jake Runestad (born 1986); and Unclouded Day by Josiah Kelley Alwood (1828-1909). The repertoire is wide-ranging in time and subject matter, and the St. Charles Singers handle it all with smooth and very pleasant tone, skillfully highlighting the emotional high points of each piece. Sincerity is the watchword here: the singers do not sound as if they are just going through the paces of performances, but are genuinely trying to bring the emotional content of the words and music across to the audience. Nevertheless, there is a certain sameness to the emoting that underplays the differences in the material and thus understates the differing emotional effects of, for example, the overt religiosity of Great God Almighty and the quieter spirituality implied by Walden Pond. This is a fine chorus that sings very well, even if with a certain uniformity that keeps the repertoire from coming across in as varied a way as listeners might expect.

     It is not, of course, necessary to use voices at all in order to tell stories in and with music. That is the lesson of a (++++) MSR Classics CD offering yet more of the music of Barbara Harbach (born 1946). A great deal of her large output is available on this label: this is the 12th CD and the fourth devoted to orchestral music. It is also one of the best and most interesting of the series. Both the works here are world première recordings, and both use strictly orchestral means to communicate a series of emotions every bit as clearly as could be done by setting words. Symphony No. 11, “Retourner,” is a three-movement work based on the 1913 Willa Cather novel, O Pioneers! Not often read today, the book, set in Nebraska in the early 20th century, is about a young woman’s attempt to succeed with the farm she has inherited from her father even though many other immigrant families in Nebraska have given up. It has the sorts of family squabbles and traumas common in novels of its time – those of Theodore Dreiser come to mind – and climaxes with a husband killing his wife and her lover. There is a sense of pervasive nostalgia for a time that never was in the book (which is the first of a trilogy), and it is this characteristic that Harbach brings out effectively in her symphony. She is essentially a tonal composer, and that stands her in good stead in representing this period piece: only a section of the first movement called “Debate” has any real edge to it. The symphony gives no hint of the melodramatic/tragic portions of the book, focusing on its rather over-sweet romantic elements and, in the last movement, on a happy day at a country fair. Even more interesting is the other work on this disc, Hypocrisy, a 13-section suite written as the score for a notorious 1915 silent film called Hypocrites that was widely condemned and even banned because of its use of full nudity and its attack on traditional moral values as exemplified by organized religion. The film was made by Lois Weber, the most famous female director of her time, and was full of condemnations of the hypocritical elements of business, family life, politics, and social structures in general. As in the symphony, Harbach somewhat downplays the more-intense and more-compelling elements of Hypocrites, although movements called “Shock and Death” and “Sermon of Hypocrisy” (the latter concluding the suite) offer a certain degree of tension. By and large, the suite contains varied elements that call up all sorts of emotions, even if the specific ones will not always be clear to listeners who are unfamiliar with Weber’s film, which will be the case for almost the whole audience. The film, for example, contrasts a medieval monk named Gabriel, who is murdered after he makes a statue of Truth that turns out to be a naked woman, with a modern-day Gabriel who is pastor of a large, wealthy, hypocritical urban church. The suite’s section called “Gabriel the Ascetic” works better if one knows this element of the plot than if one does not. And so matters go throughout Harbach’s work. Nevertheless, the 55-minute suite sustains very well, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus plays both the suite and the symphony with dedication and obvious respect for what Harbach is trying to communicate. Both these pieces could be somewhat edgier and, if they were, would better reflect their source material; but as is, they both do a very fine job of using purely instrumental means to put across some, if not all, of the emotional concerns and impact of the works on which they are based.

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