October 24, 2019
Dowland: Songs (Airs) for Voice and Lute. Mariana Flores, soprano; Hopkinson Smith, lute. Naïve. $16.99.
Holst: The Planets; The Perfect Fool—Ballet Music. Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Purcell: Come Ye Sons of Arts; Peter Meechan: Love Songs; Holst: Song without Words, “I Love My Love”; Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes.” Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The German, Italian and French traditions are the bulwark of the standard classical-music repertoire; the English tradition is much less so. This is more an accident of history than one of musical quality, however, since there is so much excellent British music – some well-known, some only now being discovered or rediscovered. One of the preeminent British composers had the misfortune, if one could call it that, to live in Shakespeare’s time, and therefore wrote in a style that would later be largely eclipsed. But the works of John Dowland (1563-1626) remain a pinnacle of expressiveness and emotional communication even today, as is very clear in a fine new Naïve recording featuring Mariana Flores and Hopkinson Smith. These two really are paired on this CD: the vocal and instrumental elements blend and interweave in such a way as to reinforce each other strongly, lending the 15 airs and two instrumental interludes remarkable power. The pieces are drawn from five Songs or Ayres volumes by Dowland, printed between 1597 and 1612, and are in the main rather on the dour side – which does not prevent them from being uniformly beautiful, dark-hued tonally but tremendously expressive in their use both of the mellifluous English language of Dowland’s and Shakespeare’s time and in their extremely careful crafting to take full advantage of the capabilities of the lute. There are occasional lighter pieces here, such as Come Away, Come Sweet Love. But the more-typical feeling evoked here is melancholy, if not intense despair, expressed with considerable beauty in airs such as Can She Excuse My Wrongs, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, If My Complaints Could Passions Move, and Sorrow, Sorrow Stay. Indeed, listeners will want the sort of sorrow expressed here to stay: the singing and lute playing are that beautiful and that involving. The temporal distance from Dowland’s time to today, and the language differences that render these airs so beautiful, have the effect of mitigating the emotional depth of the material to an extent sufficient to make this CD a joy (if that is an apt word) to hear either straight through or bit by bit. It is not that the emotional content is upbeat, much less bubbly; none of it is. Neither are the expressions of worry, concern and even torment entirely surface-level, as they are in popular music today (and Dowland’s music was, in a sense, the popular music of its time). Flores enunciates the poetic language clearly and forcefully, and Smith’s mastery of the lute is absolute – and is shown to fine effect in the two instrumental pieces, Mignarda and Go Crystal Tears (the latter also being heard with a vocal line). It is worth remembering that only a few years after Dowland’s death, in 1645, John Milton in Il Penseroso called on Melancholy to “bid the soul of Orpheus sing/ Such notes as, warbled to the string,/ Drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek,/ And made Hell grant what love did seek.” This is the mood in which Dowland wrote, and it is one that Flores and Smith plumb deeply and expressively.
Much later British music sounds quite different, of course, but here too the emotional expressiveness of the material can be highly effective – even when performances are not at the level of the ones by Flores and Smith. A new Reference Recordings SACD is blessed with absolutely first-rate sound – this label has some of the best audio quality in the business – but places it at the service of a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets that is not quite at the highest level. It is not that Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony are unequal to the music: this is a fine orchestra, if not quite a first-tier one as yet. But there is something a trifle flaccid here in the more-outgoing portions of Holst’s suite for large orchestra, resulting in a performance in which, unusually, the most-effective elements are the ones that tend to be somewhat downplayed in most readings. Mars, the Bringer of War does not march forth with intensity and inevitability: things are a bit tentative in this opening movement, whose potential as a sonic spectacular is never quite realized. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, on the other hand, far from being the anticlimax that it can sometimes be, comes across very effectively, Holst’s sound world here gently wafting through the air. Among the other movements, Mercury, the Winged Messenger is effective, if not quite as fleet as possible, while the big, brawny Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity and rather peculiarly mystifying Uranus, the Magician come across moderately well, but without any real fire or intensity. However, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age really limps, sounding almost as if the music can barely pull itself along from measure to measure, and the concluding Neptune, the Mystic is truly evanescent, the wordless six-part female chorus barely a presence at all and yet so crucial to the feeling of this movement that the whole thing seems to be built around the voices. The result of this rather unusual admixture of material is a version of The Planets that will not likely be most listeners’ first choice, but that is notable for the way it highlights elements of Holst’s music that tend to get somewhat short shrift in other renditions. The (+++) disc is filled out with the popular ballet music from Holst’s one-act parodistic opera, The Perfect Fool, and here Stern and the ensemble thoroughly take the measure of the material: the contrast among the spirits of Earth, Water and Fire is made quite clear, and the clean playing and fine sectional balance will make lovers of Holst wonder, likely not for the first time, why someone does not produce a recording of the entirety of The Perfect Fool. This ballet music is more than enough to whet the appetite for the whole thing.
Holst’s music also appears, briefly, on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. This is strictly a recording for people fascinated by the sound of a top-quality grouping of these particular instruments: the ensemble includes Lev Garbar, Andrew Hunter and Joe Loeffler on trumpet, piccolo trumpet and flugelhorn; Kathryn Swope and Renée Vogen, horns; Ian Fitzwater, trombone; Philip Bessette and Akshat Jain on tubas; Joe Beribak, Logan Fox and Michael Schraft, timpani and percussion; and organists Heike Burghart Rice, Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeith. The Holst piece here is a Craig Garner arrangement of Song without Words, “I Love My Love,” and it is certainly a well-made arrangement of the music – even though this work is not an ideal vehicle for this particular instrumental combination. However, the reason for including the Holst is plain enough: it follows Love Songs by contemporary British composer Peter Meechan (born 1980) – four vocal settings of Shakespeare sonnets, featuring the Oriana Singers and City Voices of Chicago under William Chin, with the Holst providing instrumental contrast to the extended song cycle. Meechan arranges his four songs intelligently, providing the selected sonnets with a narrative underpinning: first is Lost Love (Sonnet 71), then Love’s Betrayal (Sonnet 147), Love’s Dream (Sonnet 43), and Love’s Ideal (Sonnet 116). Meechan’s choral settings become somewhat more impersonal than Dowland’s single-voice settings, distancing listeners a bit from Shakespeare’s thoughts in a way that renders Elizabethan English more observational: while Dowland transcends the hundreds of years of language between his time and today, Meechan tends to embrace them, creating songs that accept the beauty of the language without ever truly plumbing the depths of the emotions that the language was designed to communicate. The Meechan and Holst works are placed in the middle of a disc that opens with a reconstruction by Rebecca Herissone of Come Ye Sons of Arts by Henry Purcell (1656-1695), arranged, as is the Holst, by Garner. This provides a suitable lead-in to the Meechan cycle. But the concluding material on this (+++) all-British CD stands apart in several ways from the rest of the disc: Garner’s arrangement of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. These are, in fact, five of the opera’s six interludes: the Passacaglia is No. 4 and the others are Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 2. As an atmospheric suite, the music is highly effective, especially when the Passacaglia is added at the end. And Garner’s sensitive arrangement works particularly well: the atmosphere of gloom and repression that overhangs the opera comes through clearly, and the instrumentation seems just right to communicate Britten’s carefully managed mood changes. This disc as a whole is something of a specialty item focused on a specific instrumental complement, but the Britten material is out-and-out special – and the other works offer some interesting perspective on the way British music has developed over the course of many centuries.