June 06, 2019


Tenore di forza: Favorite Tenor Arias. Kristian Benedikt, tenor; Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Modestos Pitrénas. Delos. $14.98.

Treasures of Devotion: European Spiritual Songs ca. 1500. The Boston Camerata conducted by Anne Azéma. Music & Arts Programs of America. $14.95.

Michael Hersch: das Rückgrat berstend; Music for Violin and Piano; Carrion-Miles to Purgatory—13 pieces after texts of Robert Lowell. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin and voice; Jay Campbell, cello; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Michael Hersch, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Richard Strauss asked the question wittily, and with a lightness belying its underlying seriousness, in his final completed opera, Capriccio: which is more important, the music or the words? Capriccio (1942) takes place around the year 1775, and surely Strauss and co-librettist Clemens Krauss (who conducted the Strauss work’s première) were aware that the same question had been posed at just about that time in Antonio Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole (1786). Never answered by either Salieri or Strauss, it is a question worth asking about vocal classical music in general, and one that will likely elicit different answers depending on the specifics of individual works and – in our modern age of recordings – the purpose of presenting those works in a form suitable for hearing at home again and again. It is surely not the specific words of the arias on a Delos CD featuring Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt that will attract listeners, since all the words, as always in presentations such as this, are taken wholly out of their operatic context. It is the music that will be the main attraction here, specifically the music as Benedikt handles it with backing from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Modestos Pitrénas. The purpose of the CD is to introduce Benedikt to a wider audience – this is his first recording – and to showcase his vocal abilities in music of highly varying character. Most of the arias heard here will be thrice-familiar to opera lovers: they come from Verdi’s Otello, Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, Halévy’s La Juive, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and Turandot, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, and Massenet’s Le Cid. There is nothing surprising in any of these performances, and there are some arias that do not show Benedikt at his best, such as Nessun dorma, where the dramatic octave drop at the start comes across as a throwaway. It would be good to hear more of Benedikt in Wagner, for which his voice seems well-suited – here only a single excerpt, from Die Walküre, is offered. And it could be interesting to hear him in some less-known repertoire that would not result in his voice inevitably being compared with those of other tenors who have had more time to hone both their musical instincts and their dramatic ones. An excerpt from Ponchielli’s I Lituani and one from Lithuanian composer Vytautas Klova’s Pilėnai are more than usually interesting here, their rarity making it possible to focus on the fine, mostly even quality of Benedikt’s voice without inviting comparison with the many other tenors who have sung the more-familiar fare on the disc. This is a fine if not especially outstanding debut recording, one that indicates that Benedikt is already quite a capable tenor even though he is not at this point especially distinguished in presenting the better-known material written for his vocal range.

     It is the words rather than the melodies that are likely to be the primary attraction for most listeners in a series of heartfelt and often very beautiful performances by the Boston Camerata on the Music & Arts Programs of America label. The 25 works here, ranging in length from less than a minute to just under four, are not the grand choral devotionals that listeners will likely expect in music of this era. They are mostly quiet and reserved works, many in the expected Church Latin but some also in the languages of the regions where they originate: French and German. With very few exceptions, this is music by composers almost entirely unknown today – Josquin Desprez is the one most likely to be known to a modern audience – and the music itself has a tendency to blend from one piece into the next, not only when there are multiple settings offered of the same words (De tous biens plaine, O bone Jesu, Tant que vivray) but also when the words are entirely different. Yet it is those words, or rather the sound of the words even for listeners who do not know their meaning, that is the primary means of involvement and emotional evocation here. There is a purity to all this music, a simplicity and beauty of appeal to God that the words evoke no matter who sets them to music. This is especially clear when tracks in different languages follow each other: Pécheurs souffrez, then Ewiger Gott, aus des Gebot, and then O bone Jesu, for example. By the standards of half a millennium later, the musical settings here sound very similar to each other, even though scholars and those familiar with other works of this time period will notice numerous differences from piece to piece. But the similarity of sound and instrumentation (lute and viola da gamba being prominent throughout the CD, with some appearances by harp and the violin-like, long obsolete vielle) actually helps the messages of the words come through with greater clarity. This is indeed devotional music, as the disc’s title indicates: meditative, inwardly focused, always sensitive, and intended to connect performers and listeners with a higher spiritual plane. To the extent that the words of each of these works – some of which are actually secular rather than religious – help make the connection with something above, the pieces are indeed treasures.

     The issue of the relative communicative power of words and music must be looked at in an entirely different way when it comes to a New Focus Recordings release of music by Michael Hersch (born 1971). Hersch here uses texts in ways quite different from anything ever offered by Salieri or Strauss: in one case by including vocalizing in a chamber work, in another by having words set the stage (so to speak) for music containing no verbalizations. The spoken words appear in das [with a small “d”] Rückgrat berstend, whose title, which translates as “Bursting the Spine,” is said at one point by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who performs the piece with cellist Jay Campbell. All the words that Kopatchinskaja speaks in this work are by Christopher Middleton, translated into German by Wolfgang Justen. As for how their meaning relates to or suffuses the music – that is very difficult to say. The words carry the usual freight of anomie and portentousness of a great deal of modern expressivism – “dry vine leaves and a few dead flies on fire,” that sort of thing. Neither the spoken material nor the uniformly dissonant and often deliberately screechy music appears to have anything of great significance to communicate. But Hersch surely intends all of this to mean something, since he has shown in works such as his Symphony No. 2 (2001) that he is capable of pulling an audience in a variety of contrasting directions through skillful orchestration. Kopatchinskaja actually commissioned das Rückgrat berstend and presumably has a good sense of what it is trying to say – but neither what it says nor what she says in it comes across to much effect. Carrion-Miles to Purgatory—13 pieces after texts of Robert Lowell uses words very differently: excerpts from Lowell introduce each of the pieces (and, yes, one such excerpt includes the words, “carrion miles to purgatory”), but the words are not actually uttered during this extended piece, which is for violin (Miranda Cuckson) and cello (Campbell). Hersch is a brittle composer, far better at acerbity than lyricism, for which he has little patience; but an occasional meandering into warmth in these pieces comes as a welcome respite from the starkness characterizing most of the material. However, here as in das Rückgrat berstend, the relationship between the verbiage and the musical material is scarcely evident: it is almost as if words and music inhabit two different worlds that barely intersect, rather than a single one of which they are both part. Matters are more straightforward in Music for Violin and Piano, simply because no words are here involved or invoked in any way. Cuckson performs this with Hersch himself at the piano, so it is fair to say that this extremely dry, insistent and often unpalatable performance is pretty much definitive. This is music that almost sounds like a parody of the contemporary, with Hersch zipping up and down the keyboard as Cuckson saws violently away at the violin as if determined to take both the instrument and her bow to their limits. Of course, music need not be pleasant-sounding in order to be communicative, and in fact deliberate unpleasantness can be used skillfully by composers to make specific emotional points. But that usually requires some level of contrast with material that is not unpleasant to hear, and anything of that sort is pretty much absent in these Hersch works. There is little doubt that Hersch puts this music together with skill, but nothing on the CD invites listeners to an experience that most will be eager to repeat.

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