May 28, 2020
Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Alina Ibragimova, violin; State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Yevgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Hyperion. $14.50.
Forty-five years after his death, Shostakovich continues to exercise a fascination on performers and audiences through his unique aural world and the way it seems to reflect the disturbances and uncertainties of our time just as effectively as it limned the very different circumstances of his own. A new generation of soloists, such as violinist Alina Ibragimova (born 1985), is discovering that Shostakovich has just as much to say in the 21st century as he was able to put forth, often rather obliquely in Soviet days, in the 20th. Even when Shostakovich wrote music for a specific performer – both his violin concertos were created for David Oistrakh (1908-1974) – the material has expressive power and intensity that reach out through other musicians and connect with audiences in an exceptionally visceral way. Ibragimova’s hyper-virtuosic account of the first concerto on a new Hyperion CD perfectly encapsulates the ways in which so much by Shostakovich continues to seem always new and remarkably up-to-date in compositional techniques. The concerto’s first movement is designated Nocturne but is scarcely an inviting nighttime scene, being shot through with disquiet and uncertainty in ways that Shostakovich communicates particularly well and to which Ibragimova is particularly sensitive. The second movement is one of those biting scherzos that are immediately identifiable as being Shostakovich’s – and here, when the violin briefly falls silent, the eruptive sound that Vladimir Jurowski evokes from the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Yevgeny Svetlanov” is especially penetrating. The heart of this concerto is its third and longest movement, a Passacaglia – one of several movements that Shostakovich created in this old-fashioned style and brought quite thoroughly into the modern age, complete with a plethora of emotion. Ibragimova soars here, her sensitivity to the movement’s subtle mood shifts carrying the deeply emotive material along to what sounds like a nearly continuous climax: as in the first part of Boito’s Mefistofele, just when it seems that the music cannot possibly go higher (emotionally higher, in Shostakovich’s case), the composer finds a way to bring it to yet another peak – and Ibragimova not only follows Shostakovich’s lead but also pulls the audience up and up with her. This movement is so exhausting to play that Oistrakh asked Shostakovich to open the finale, which is played attacca after an extended cadenza, with the orchestra alone – allowing the violinist a moment of breathing room. Shostakovich complied – but it is his original version of the start of the finale, in which the soloist proffers the main theme, that Ibragimova offers here, and without any flagging of technique or apparent diminution of enthusiasm. The effect is to re-emphasize the violinist both as a guide to the many emotions stirred by the concerto and as the central character in a very extended drama (to some extent a melodrama) in which Shostakovich delves into his own postwar thoughts and concerns (the concerto dates to 1947-48) while reflecting those of the Soviet Union and, it seems in retrospect, the rest of the world as well. The Passacaglia and, in particular, the cadenza with which it concludes, cry out for some kind of resolution – some element of hopefulness – but what happens when Ibragimova introduces the finale, marked Burlesque, is that the emotional tone becomes one of near-hysteria, a frantic reaching-out for some sort of satisfactory peroration without any expectation of finding one. Thanks to the excellence of both soloist and orchestra, this finale is a musical thrill ride that may well leave listeners breathless. But Ibragimova and Jurowski never lose sight of the reality that this is exhilaration without assurance: the music plunges headlong to its conclusion without ever really providing a satisfactory summation of the multitude of emotions that it has called forth.
The second concerto, which dates to 1967, is a somewhat more modest work than the first, and its sensibilities are more muted if equally enigmatic. There is a delicacy, even lyricism, to the work’s opening, a near-tenderness that goes beyond anything in the first concerto – although this is by no means a resigned or reserved work: it takes less than three minutes for typical Shostakovich acerbity to begin to emerge. However, this is an altogether more-moderate piece than the first concerto, not only emotionally but also in tempo: the first movement is Moderato, the second Adagio, and the third also Adagio until the concluding Allegro bursts through. Although scarcely quiet, the second concerto is more intimate than the first, with three movements rather than four and a shorter total running time (in Ibragimova’s performances, 32½ minutes vs. 39). The second concerto has nothing like the overwhelming cadenza at the end of the Passacaglia of the first, but instead has three cadenzas, which collectively keep the work’s focus on the soloist and at the same time give the piece as a whole a sense of unity. Ibragimova’s performance here is not quite as unerring as in the first concerto – she seems to drift a bit, emotionally, in the earlier cadenzas – but the way in which her playing is interwoven with that of the orchestra (which is slightly smaller than is the first concerto’s ensemble) testifies to the excellence of the close collaboration between her and Jurowski. The spare sound of the second concerto, in which Shostakovich repeatedly uses solos or small instrumental groups to set off the orchestra as a whole (somewhat in the manner of Mahler), comes through exceptionally well here, whether in pizzicato string passages or delicate snare-drum touches. There is a frequent sense here of striving for something – just what, Shostakovich does not quite pin down – especially in the second movement, in which the warm but very clear tone of Ibragimova’s Anselmo Bellosio 1775 violin is heard to particularly good effect. The finale here is less frantic and frenetic than that of the first concerto, with Ibragimova’s focus on the dancelike rhythms (interspersed with percussion eruptions) coming through particularly well. There is some near-playfulness in Ibragimova’s handling of this movement’s cadenza, which is longer than either of the concerto’s earlier ones. But when the orchestra reenters afterwards, we are again in emotionally uncertain territory, now with fanfares and percussion outbursts underlining and almost competing with the swells and swerves of the soloist, until a final resolution that is decisive but at the same time oddly uncertain – a compelling conclusion to a CD featuring very distinguished playing and very considerable insight into music that seems always to have something new (if not always something precise) to deliver to listeners.
James M. Stephenson: Concerto for Hope—Concerto No. 3 for Trumpet and Orchestra; Mark Hagerty: None of the Above for Trumpet and Piano; Justin Casinghino: …And So Then I Threw the Stone for Trumpet and Electronics; Michael Mikulka: Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble. Andrew Stetson, trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet; Texas Tech University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philip Mann; Becca Zeisler, piano; Justin Casinghino, electronics; Texas Tech University Symphonic Band conducted by Eric Allen. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Aviary: Birds in Poetry and Song. Gary Wood, baritone; Philip Swanson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
In dark and troubled times, hopefulness can be difficult to come by – but sometimes, if not always, music can be a bridge to a better future. That is certainly the intention of Concerto for Hope by James Stephenson (born 1969). The work is designed to reflect the positive attitude of trumpeter Ryan Anthony, who responded to being diagnosed with a blood cancer, multiple myeloma, by establishing a foundation and creating fundraisers called “Cancer Blows.” Knowing this background helps set the scene for Stephenson’s concerto; knowing that some of the money spent on the MSR Classics disc containing the concerto is donated to Anthony’s foundation may encourage listeners to buy the CD. For most people, though, the main interest here is likely to be hearing Andrew Stetson’s skilled performance in this world première recording, along with his handling of three other world premières. The Stephenson concerto is laid out in the traditional three movements, the third bearing the specific title Speranza, and lies well on the solo instrument. Both the Moderato first movement and the Adagio second are meditative, with the second movement’s extended solo-trumpet focus inviting expressively elegant playing. The finale is more dissonant than the other movements, a slightly disconcerting fact in light of its “hope” title, but it is upbeat enough to make an effective conclusion to the concerto. None of the Above by Mark Hagerty (born 1953) was written for the performers heard here, Stetson and pianist Becca Zeisler. It is a very different work from Stephenson’s and is a kind of “cause” piece in a different sense. The work’s overall title is also the title of the first of its four movements, most of which is a cacophonous eruption from the two instruments. The second movement, B, C & D, is a meandering piece based on the three tones of its title. The third movement is called Other (explain) and is a sort-of dance that mixes old and new compositional techniques. The finale is called, perhaps inevitably, All of the Above, and is the “cause” heart of the work, aimed at hoped-for acceptance of all people and all attitudes and all sorts of music. It is less interesting than the other movements, though, and sounds a bit like warmed-over Ives. The next work on the disc is called (with ellipsis) …And So Then I Threw the Stone. It is by Justin Casinghino (born 1978), and sounds a bit like warmed-over acoustic-plus-electronic music of all sorts. Lasting 12 minutes, longer than any movement of any of the other works on the CD, it overstays its welcome and does not showcase Stetson’s warmth and musical sensitivity particularly well. The final work offered here, Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble by Michael Mikulka (born 1985), is considerably more interesting. Its three movements together are only slightly longer than Casinghino’s single one, but Mikulka shows considerable skill in writing both for the solo instrument and for the ensemble. Rather old-fashioned lyricism keeps creeping into the concerto, even in its more-pointed sections (the first movement is marked Aggressive). Mikulka overdoes a few effects, especially in the third movement – a finale in which the parts for both trumpet and ensemble are less distinctive than in the first two movements. But the blending of solo and band is effective even here, and this work, along with Stephenson’s concerto, will be especially attractive for audiences interested not only in fine playing but also in well-wrought contemporary trumpet music.
The forms of uplift are also mixed on another MSR Classics release packed with world premières, this one celebrating birds of various types in music of various kinds. The performances, more than the material, are what bring some sense of order here: composer/pianist Philip Swanson conceptualized the recital and composed the longest work on the disc, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (words by Wallace Stevens). Swanson also wrote Great Grey Owl (words by Annie Finch) and The Wild Swans at Coole (words by William Butler Yeats). Swanson dedicates these works and the other material heard here to baritone Gary Wood, so the recital has something of a chums-making-music feeling to it even though the five shorter pieces on the disc were not written by Swanson himself. They are all in jazz idiom: Peace by Horace Silver, Skylark by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, Baltimore Oriole by Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz, and Ladybird by Tadd Dameron and Stanley Cornfield. The question of audience for this CD is a pervasive one: beyond Wood and Swanson themselves, and their inner circle, and perhaps some ornithologists and birdwatchers, the appeal of this mixture of disparate material is rather hard to pin down. The self-conscious Sprechstimme and dissonances of Swanson’s settings proclaim them contemporary but produce a sameness of sound that undermines the distinctiveness of Stevens’ multiple viewpoints and the distinctions between his use of the English language and the very different ways in which Finch and Yeats employ it. Wood enunciates all the poetry well, but with some strain periodically showing in his voice. Swanson’s solo-piano handling of Peace (loosely connected to the “bird” theme by the notion of doves as harbingers of peacefulness) acts as a kind of punctuation point, a musical semicolon, prior to the four jazzlike works that bring a pop-music feeling to the last part of the CD. Humans, especially in times of fear and trauma, tend to romanticize birds, which seem to soar above earthbound concerns. This is scientifically quite inaccurate but certainly understandable; perhaps some listeners will find (or create) personalized messages in Aviary and be soothed and comforted by them. However, the disc does not really reach out very far beyond the performers themselves and the cognoscenti of Swanson’s and Wood’s particular creativity.
May 21, 2020
Ernő (Ernst von) Dohnányi: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sofja Gülbadamova, piano; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh. Capriccio. $16.99.
The composers who carried the banner of Romanticism – not neo-Romanticism but the full-fledged, 19th-century variety – into the 20th century did so unashamedly while at the same time giving their expressive, tonal works a personal stamp. Rued Langgaard did this decidedly in his 16 symphonies, for example; Sergei Rachmaninoff did so both in symphonies and piano concertos; and Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) also carried the Romantic torch forward in his two symphonies and two piano concertos. However, these large-scale Dohnányi works are not particularly well-known – perhaps ironically, his one truly popular piano-and orchestra composition is Variations on a Nursery Tune (1914), in which he follows Mozart by ringing a set of changes on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (in English, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).
The two Dohnányi concertos, the first from 1897-98 and the second written half a century later, in 1947, are every bit as lush and a great deal more portentous, even pretentious, than the clever and wry nursery-tune variations. Dohnányi was a formidable pianist, and he wrote both the concertos for himself to perform – yes, even though he was 70 years old when he created the second. In this way as well as in his musical sensibilities, Dohnányi resembled the virtuoso-cum-composer Rachmaninoff. And this means it seems to be something of a mystery that Rachmaninoff’s four concertos (especially the second and third) have become enduringly popular, while neither of Dohnányi’s is heard very often (although No. 1 is slightly more frequently played than No. 2). There are, however, some reasons for the comparative neglect, which come clear when they are performed with the skill and commitment they deserve.
Certainly the excellent new Capriccio recording featuring Sofja Gülbadamova and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh makes a very strong case for these pieces. The first concerto, in E minor, is huge even by Romantic standards – it runs as long as those by Brahms, about 48 minutes in this recording. It is in three movements, the first and third being very long indeed while the second, a pleasant 10-minute Andante, stands as something of an intermezzo between the pillars of the almost-equal-length opening and closing. Dohnányi did not have the skill of Brahms or Rachmaninoff in creating memorable themes, and his ultra-serious mien in this concerto makes it something of a morass in a way that the later, lighter, less self-conscious Variations on a Nursery Tune are not. It may simply be that the rather over-earnest nature of the first concerto has prevented it from gaining wide audience acceptance – while its numerous, very manifest difficulties have not made it a favorite of pianists. Gülbadamova gives no hint of those complexities and demands in her performance, which surmounts all the technical obstacles without apparent strain while pulling the rather sprawling work – especially its nearly 20-minute first movement – into coherent and cohesive shape. Matiakh has also taken the measure of the music quite effectively: orchestra and soloist perform as equals most of the time here, and the usual excellent sound and ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz are as warm and sumptuous as anyone could wish. The concerto is certainly effective as a display piece (and a considerable workout) for the soloist, even though its insistent nature and somewhat bloated form make it, for the audience, a work that is impressive rather than emotionally engaging or gripping.
The second concerto, in B minor, although scarcely streamlined, is a more-compressed work and in many ways a more interesting one. It is not really tightly knit, but here Dohnányi controls the sprawl better than in his earlier concerto. The capital-R Romanticism is more surprising in light of the date of this concerto, written four years after Rachmaninoff’s death, than at the time of the first concerto, begun the year Brahms died. Dohnányi never updates his harmonic palette or takes particular cognizance of the many changes in music in the first half of the 20th century: he is unabashedly faithful to the Romantic spirit and the virtuoso piano techniques associated with it. Again in this concerto, he fails to create any particularly memorable themes, but he works with his material here with more-pointed skill than in the earlier concerto, and the piece feels better proportioned. And the slow movement, marked Adagio – Poco rubato, does not come across as a byway or afterthought, but as a warm and rather thoughtful contemplation between the outer movements. Concerto No. 2 may be just too backward-looking to attract the attention of contemporary pianists; but here again, Gülbadamova and Matiakh show clear understanding of the work’s provenance and structure, and work together to produce a finely balanced, very well-played performance that shows the concerto in the best possible light. Neither concerto is anywhere near as much fun as the Variations on a Nursery Tune, which pays tribute to some composers of the early 20th century and gently satirizes others: the two concertos are serious, intense works that are “big” in every sense. That makes them challenging to play and, in truth, to hear: they are well-made and worthwhile for occasional listening, but there is little in them distinctive enough to make them stand out from other late-Romantic (or post-late-Romantic) assertions for piano and orchestra.
Clickable: The Art of Persuasion. Zara Lawler, flute, piccolo, whistle, voice, washboard, banjo; Paul Fadoul, marimba, voice, guitar, cajón, egg shaker, vibraphone, candy shaker. Ravello. $14.99.
Sometimes a CD simply cries out to be a DVD. That is especially true when the material on a CD was specifically designed as part of a visual presentation – as is the case with a new Ravello release featuring music, talk and social commentary under the overall aegis of Zara Lawler and Paul Fadoul. Listening to this is sort of like hearing an hour-long television program without being able to see it. In fact, the CD is about the length of an hour-long TV show after commercials are subtracted: it runs 47 minutes. But commercials are not subtracted here – they are a major part of what Clickable is all about. And what it is about is persuasion of all sorts. Not persuasiveness, which is a different thing and not one of which this material boasts. Persuasion is the hallmark here: a mixture of commercials, promotions, protest, verbiage, even a lullaby (which, in the context of this disc, is seen as a method of persuading a baby to go to sleep).
Lawler and Fadoul are aided and abetted in this endeavor, which originated as a live show, by composers Lewis Spratlan, Adam B. Silverman, Ralph Farris, Jason Nett, Katherine Hoover, Pat Humphries and, improbably, George Frideric Handel; and by speakers and instrumentalists Megan Meyer, Aine Zimmerman, Bill Spence, George Wilson, and Howard Jack. What pulls together all these disparate people and the many performance tools they use (from voice to hammered dulcimer to candy shaker to alto flute to nightingale whistle to cowbell to the kitchen sink – well, not that, but everything but) is a concept that, unfortunately, is not as clever or interesting as the people and instruments gathered to deliver the material. The idea here is, yawn, the excesses of a consumer-centric society and the means by which those excesses are perpetuated and the targets of those excesses are manipulated.
The actual material here is carefully conceived and sufficiently varied so that much of Clickable is fun to hear even though it is hard to take its earnestness seriously. For example, there are four 30-second “commercials” called Hedonic Treadmill in which Fadoul, as announcer, tells Lawler, playing a housewife, of new and improved ways to do laundry – starting in the first case with something better than pounding clothes on rocks and ending in the fourth with an app that distances the person doing wash from the wash altogether. This is cute, but the point is – what? That people would be better off pounding clothes on rocks than using, say, a washing machine (as in the intermediate offerings)? And how exactly are these sarcastic commercials different from a genuine commercial called The Sweet Shop, which Farris wrote for him, Lawler and Fadoul to perform as a thank-you to one of the sponsors of the show? This little 51-second promotional piece is cute in its own way and seems sincere. But where is the dividing line? Is there one?
Also cute are settings of copy from book dust jackets – another clever idea – in which music subtly comments on the promotional writing designed to interest potential readers. But again, the point is – what? Should there be no dust-jacket copy for, say, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? Is there some less-promotional way to interest people who have never read the book in trying it? What is the alternative? (It is this dust-jacket setting that gets music by Handel, incidentally – music that stands out for its beauty, simplicity, and lack of any apparent ulterior motive.)
There are some places here where the music is eminently listenable: Canyon Serenade for flute, marimba and vibraphone is lovely (even though it lacks the visual element for which it was created: a dance); and Common Thread, the last track on the CD, is a protest song so typical in sound and topic that it comes perilously close to self-parody – it is all about greater unity through diversity, the evils of police, and that sort of ho-hum naïveté. It comes complete with audience sing-along, which is easy for listeners to do because the melody is both super-simple and super-catchy. The point of the song, though, is harder to grasp – something about the ills of society and the need to fix them through, what, singing? One thinks of Tom Lehrer’s 1960s ditty about the “folk song army” with its admonition, “Ready, aim – sing!” Apparently little has changed in this particular sort of music in the last half-century. For that matter, the desire to stage something that is societally aware (the current oh-so-trendy word is “woke”) and have it incorporate music as part of a larger experience has also changed little. Clickable is, on one level, pleasantly old-fashioned, for all its professions of being up to date and acerbic. On another level, in CD form, it is really a visual performance in search of a way to connect without its visuals – something it manages to do only intermittently and imperfectly. Taken as a whole, this “art of persuasion” is a good deal more artistic than it is persuasive.
May 14, 2020
Handel, arranged by Sir Eugène Goossens and Sir Thomas Beecham: Messiah. Penelope Shumate, soprano; Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass-baritone; Jonathan Griffith Singers, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Griffith. Signum Classics. $25.99 (2 CDs).
An oddly compelling exercise in wretched excess, the Goossens/Beecham version of Handel’s Messiah stands in a long line of modifications of Handel’s 1741 original, including quite a few by the composer himself – and one created by Mozart in 1789 and intended to be sung in German as Der Messias (K. 572). It is arguable whether there is “blame” of some sort to be attached to the many changes made over the centuries to Messiah, but if there is, it traces to Handel himself: he created numerous versions of the oratorio for different singers and different performance spaces, as was customary in his time, and it was only natural for others, impressed by the subject matter and the beauty of the presentation, to want later audiences to hear the story and the music in ways to which their “modernized” ears would be better adapted.
It is important, in an age now largely focused on performing music as composers intended it to be performed, to understand just how non-unusual this sort of alteration was. Handel’s 1741 instrumentation for Messiah consisted only of two trumpets, two oboes, two violins, one viola, timpani and basso continuo. In his version, Mozart had the horn, not the trumpet, play The Trumpet Shall Sound, added three trombones, switched Handel’s organ for a harpsichord, added the clarinet, changed Handel’s soprano-and-alto to two sopranos, and made numerous other alterations, including cutting some numbers altogether and shortening others. In all, Mozart changed about two-thirds of Messiah, while specifically stating that he was not trying to “improve” it but to adapt it for new purposes – specifically, for private performances in noble houses rather than the public, opera-like theatrical presentation for which Handel intended it.
So when Beecham commissioned his onetime assistant conductor, Goossens (who had also been a violinist in Beecham’s orchestra), to produce a Messiah suitable for performance in the large concert venues common in the mid-20th century, using orchestral and vocal forces that people had come to expect, he was merely asking for the latest in a long line of adaptations intended to communicate the underlying meaning and message of the music in a form that would be more palatable to a later audience and more readily understood by later listeners. Beecham also wanted a commemoration of the bicentenary of Handel’s death in 1759, and Goossens obliged with a version that includes four horns, three trombones, tuba, piccolo, contrabassoon, two harps, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – plus a full modern orchestra and large chorus. Adding cymbal clashes to For unto Us a Child Is Born, creating an accelerando in the Hallelujah Chorus, and otherwise expanding and inflating pretty much all aspects of Messiah, Goossens produced a version that may be called monumental and celebratory by its proponents (including Beecham), but deemed a bloated excrescence by detractors. Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the Goossens version in 1959, and that recording became initially famous for its grandeur and enthusiasm, then notorious for being tremendously overblown as the historical-practice movement in music took hold.
The 1959 Beecham performance remained the only recorded version of the Goossens adaptation of Messiah not because of changing musical tastes but because of the most prosaic of reasons: a legal dispute, with both the Goossens and Beecham estates laying claim to it. Now that that matter has finally (after more than half a century!) been resolved, an all-new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has again had the opportunity to perform this Messiah, now under the direction of Jonathan Griffith in a new Signum Classics recording.
The result is strange, fascinating, sometimes moving, sometimes almost laughable because of the extent to which the arrangement now sounds overdone. Today’s listeners are likely to know Messiah in one or another of its Handelian forms, performed by a small complement of singers and instrumentalists, whether or not historical performance practices are rigorously followed. The opulence and sheer massiveness of the Goossens/Beecham version will therefore come as something of a shock: it is all so big, so endlessly insistent on its own importance, that the rather modest and elegant libretto by Charles Jennens, based in large part on the Old Testament rather than the New, seems scarcely equal to the task of penetrating music that insists on being delivered with splendor and intensity. The four soloists are all quite fine and clearly committed to this project, especially clear-voiced soprano Penelope Shumate, who invests all her lines with emotional as well as vocal strength. The choral forces are enthusiastic, their pronunciation readily intelligible and their sense of the music’s rhythms quite clear. And the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra delivers a smooth, warmly massive sound under Griffith, with playing that is skilled and heartfelt.
This is sure to be a divisive Messiah, since it so clearly flies in the face of modern scholarship and performance practice, yet equally clearly reflects the time of its creation as surely as Mozart’s K. 572 reflects the time and circumstances of its origin. Listeners already familiar with the 1959 Beecham recording, with which many older lovers of Messiah literally grew up, will sweep aside any questions of the appropriateness of this version and simply enjoy it for its mixture of musicality and nostalgic value. Listeners hearing a grandiose version of Messiah for the first time will likely be less forgiving of this version’s excesses and may well find the performance rather elephantine. Messiah is truly a work for all times, musically transcendental despite its libretto’s clear focus on one specific form of religious belief, experience and expression. From a strictly musical perspective, the time for the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has passed, and that may be just as well: Messiah has an elegance, simplicity and directness in the original 1741 version and Handel’s subsequent modifications that it certainly lacks in this recording. But the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has an undeniably fascinating celebratory quality that makes it well worth hearing as an alternative approach to the material – as well as an aural documentation of the tastes and expectations of musicians and audiences alike in the middle of the 20th century.
Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua. Hila Plitmann, soprano; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Fallon, tenor; Matthew Worth, Kenneth Overton and James K. Bass, baritones; UCLA Chamber Singers and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Every time period has its own forms of acknowledgment, celebration and worship; and among Christians, every time period has its own way, musical and otherwise, of paying homage and tribute to Jesus. The way chosen by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) goes back to Hebrew, the original language of the Jews – of whom Jesus was one – and returns to the original form of Jesus’ name, Yeshua, which was a common one at the time and is attached to numerous characters in the Bible. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the name Jesus was rendered as beginning with the equivalent of an “I,” there being no “J” in Greek. The “J” results from a 16th-century typographical error that was perpetuated in later printings of the Bible. But none of this particularly matters to believers, any more than do the differing pronunciations of “J” and therefore of “Jesus” in modern languages. The reference is what matters, and the reference is clear.
Nevertheless, Danielpour’s use of the original name, complemented by his inclusion of Hebrew passages among the English ones in his “Dramatic Oratorio in Fourteen Scenes,” shows how determined the composer is to revisit Christ’s Passion from an angle both new and as old as the Gospels themselves. Naxos’ world première recording of The Passion of Yeshua (2017) does full justice to Danielpour’s vision, thanks to the strong involvement and fine vocal talents of half a dozen soloists and the highly committed, knowing and knowledgeable conducting with which JoAnn Falletta shapes the performances of the UCLA Chamber Singers and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra.
In line with the common modern focus on the human side of Yeshua/Jesus, The Passion of Yeshua is filled with emotionally engaging, involving music that explores the pain and suffering of Christ’s last days on Earth. In line with the contemporary desire to increase the prominence of women in narratives of all sorts, The Passion of Yeshua makes both Jesus’ mother Mary (here “Miryam,” sung by J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (here “Miryam Magdala,” sung by Hila Plitmann) as prominent in the oratorio as is Yeshua (Kenneth Overton) himself. The result is a greater contemplation of compassion and forgiveness than a focus on the more-abstract notion of divinity-made-human and the attainment of eternal life through unswerving belief. And Danielpour’s music fits the emotional tone and undertone of the libretto, which he himself adapted and assembled, very well. The musical medium he chooses is essentially tonal, the choruses in particular having an old-fashioned massed feeling that recalls elements of the Baroque without in any way imitating (or even paying direct tribute to) the works of the Baroque masters. When Danielpour uses dissonance, he does so movingly and even cleverly: for example, rather than employing it obviously in the fifth scene, “Betrayal,” he uses it in the chorus of the seventh, “Interlude,” which immediately follows the longest scene of all, “Gethsemane.”
Danielpour’s treatment of the events is full of surprising, very effective touches. The fifth scene, “Intermezzo: In the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is only slightly gloomy and in some respects is almost tender, as if anticipating Yeshua’s conquest of death and the redemption, through his sacrifice, of all believers. The 11th scene, “Behold the Man,” lapses into percussive barbarousness when the crowd demands of Pilate (Timothy Fallon) the release not of Yeshua but of Barabbas. And the 12th scene, “Via Dolorosa,” although certainly dark enough, features a high, operatic soprano that floats above the somber instrumental material; here too is there an implication that the pain, sorrow and suffering in the straightforward story (which is moved at an appropriate pace by narrator Matthew Worth) are scarcely the whole meaning here, or even the most important one.
The Passion of Yeshua is a long work, running more than an hour and three quarters. But like Handel’s Messiah, to which it is something of a counterpart (and which is even longer), Danielpour’s piece includes enough differences in its scenes and enough differentiation among its characters to retain audience interest throughout. In fact, Danielpour offers a 21st-century audience an alternative way of looking at the last days of Yeshua/Jesus, one that coexists with and complements the approach of Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens. Messiah proceeds operatically, but without a strong focus on Jesus or any other character: to the extent that there is a protagonist, it is the chorus, which is to say all of humanity. It is a macrocosmic view of events, a brilliant one that encompasses a promise to all people. The Passion of Jeshua is far more personalized. The troubles and suffering of Yeshua/Jesus are central here, but so are the feelings of Miryam and Miryam Magdala: their sorrow provides a microcosm of the pain of all, a pain that only Danielpour’s 14th scene, “Epilogue,” truly resolves with a message of peace and resolution that is thoroughly effective and deeply reassuring. The sheer beauty of Handel’s music, and the comfort level its words provide to those who share the beliefs of his time, have kept Messiah vital and meaningful for nearly 300 years. But because we live in a far more secular age than Handel’s, and one with a far more diverse set of religious and spiritual beliefs, Danielpour’s oratorio, with its strong focus on the human side of the New Testament narrative, fits our time period just as snugly and securely as Handel’s Messiah fit his.
May 07, 2020
Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater; Salve Regina; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis; Peace upon You, Jerusalem; L’abbé Agathon. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Richard J. Pugsley. GDC Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).
American Psalmody, Volume 1: Music of Samuel Adler, Charles Ives, Alan Hovhaness, Daniel Pinkham, Ronald A. Nelson, Robert Starer, Howard Hanson, and Randall Thompson. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Patterson. GDC Recordings. $16.99.
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” reads Matthew 6:34, which is to say there is no use worrying about tomorrow, since it will provide plenty of worries of its own. Yet it is well-nigh impossible now not to worry about tomorrow and, indeed, to worry that the worries tomorrow will bring will only extend and expand those of today…and then the next day will make things still worse…and on and on. A touch or two of the peace “which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) is very much to be wished for now – no matter what one’s individual religious or spiritual beliefs may be.
It is in times like these – and let us remember that there have been many earlier times filled with deep and justified fear, worry and uncertainty in terms both of health and of economic viability – that music, at least some music, can provide a combination of uplift and calm that can help counteract the frenetic thoughts and endlessly circulating worry and near-panic that pervade our lives today.
Yet one would not expect to find calming, uplifting music being written by contemporary composers: most are better known for dramatic, dissonant, intense music that is difficult to perform (and frequently difficult to listen to) than they are for anything remotely soothing. Arvo Pärt, however, is a notable, very notable, exception. The famed Estonian composer (born 1935) did go through a neo-Schoenbergian period early in his compositional life (and was rather imitative of Shostakovich and Prokofiev still earlier). But he concluded nearly half a century ago that those approaches were, for him, dead ends – and that he needed to return to the roots of much Western music, in the form of Gregorian chant, to find a new way forward. The result was a compositional technique that Pärt calls tintinnabuli, the word itself evoking bell sounds and minimalism – which pretty well describes how works created by Pärt using the technique come across to an audience.
Unlike other self-invented compositional approaches, though, Pärt’s does not require significant analysis or academic study to prepare listeners to experience it: whatever the technical specifics Pärt uses to create his chant-infused pieces, these are works that reach out to audiences’ emotions and provoke contemplative, uplifting and calming features that are intuitively understandable. All six works sung by the marvelous Gloriæ Dei Cantores choral group under Richard K. Pugsley on a new SACD from GDC Recordings speak beautifully to a modern audience – even one unfamiliar with Latin, the language of most of these pieces, and equally unfamiliar with the specific religious connotations and purposes of the pieces. Stabat Mater, the longest work here, produces an immediate feeling of eternity through a two-and-a-half-minute introduction for strings before the chorus even enters – and weaves a 25-minute spell of resolution and resignation, of acceptance, in musical language that certainly fits the topic (the suffering of the Virgin Mary at Christ’s Crucifixion) but that also ultimately proffers a message of hope. Salve Regina (“Hail, Queen”), directed at Mary, is declaimed, almost spoken, in Pärt’s work, whose modest pulsing carries the music along in a series of small, gentle waves. Magnificat is praise by Mary, and Pärt invests it with an otherworldliness that requires a perfectly balanced chorus with clear enunciation in even the quietest passages – providing a fine example of just how good Gloriæ Dei Cantores is. Nunc dimittis specifically asks God to allow His servant to depart in peace, and here the sense of peacefulness is palpable throughout. Peace upon You, Jerusalem – which is actually placed first on the disc – is a somewhat brighter, more-upbeat work, one in which the higher registers of the female voices have a distinct bell-like quality that produces a lovely blending at the conclusion. And then there is the most-unusual piece here: L’abbé Agathon, for voices and eight cellos, or four violas and four cellos – a work that draws not on traditional liturgical texts but on the story of one man who showed the purity and totality of his love by being willing to exchange his body for that of a leper. Placed second on the disc – just before Salve Regina – it combines instrumental effectiveness (including some telling pizzicato material) with a French vocal narrative, both spoken and sung, that makes the story more multifaceted than are the words of the other works here, but no less heartfelt and uplifting. The simplicity and directness of the setting makes it almost liturgical and lets it fit neatly among the Latin material elsewhere on this recording – helping turn this release as a whole into an experience that is both calming and highly meaningful.
Gloriæ Dei Cantores has been conveying deeply held feelings for decades, the choir’s personnel changing but its very special, elegant and lovely sound remaining consistent since the days of its founding director, Elizabeth C. Patterson. Indeed, older Gloriæ Dei Cantores recordings, led by Patterson herself, provide respite from our everyday trials and tribulations in ways that can be quite different from those heard on the Pärt disc – but every bit as satisfying. For example, the first of a Gloriæ Dei Cantores series called American Psalmody remains something of a touchstone for the ensemble and a treasurable recording in today’s troubled times, two decades after the disc’s original release. It opens with Psalm of Dedication by Samuel Adler, a brief work whose use of two trumpets and mixture of tonal and atonal elements produce a well-designed celebratory effect. Then comes a marvelous performance of Charles Ives’ third and only surviving setting of Psalm 90, this being for mixed chorus, organ and bells. A very late work – Ives almost stopped composing after 1920, and this setting dates from 1923 – the piece has a feeling of summation about it, including considerable dissonance and some marvelous Ivesian creativity (such as a pedal C throughout the entire 11-minute piece, easily looked at as the anchoring of the work and world to God). The emotional heft of the performance by Gloriæ Dei Cantores is such that the work, which can easily sound episodic, hangs together beautifully, with the distant bells heard at the end providing an otherworldly effect whose solemnity is exactly right for the material. The Ives is the emotional highlight of this CD, but there is much more at an almost equal level. Make a Joyful Noise by Alan Hovhaness, of which this was the first recording, opens with a prelude for organ and solo trombone, then uses solo and mixed voices, two trombones and two trumpets, along with the organ, to produce a cantata whose third and longest movement is a searing lamentation that is effectively countered by the joyful finale. The Hovhaness contrasts strongly with four of the 12 Psalm Motets by Daniel Pinkham: these are short, rhythmically strong pieces focusing on different emotions expressed within the set of 150 Psalms. Gloriæ Dei Cantores performs them in the order III, V, IX, and IV. Next is a setting from 1983 of Psalm 139 by Ronald A. Nelson. Here, the use of violin and organ, and the differing handling of the solo voices, show considerable skill. Then there are two Psalms of Woe and Joy by Robert Starer, the first setting taken from Psalm 6 and the second from Psalms 136 and 148. These are written for mixed chorus and piano, using the keyboard mainly for its percussive qualities. And Starer uses the words in Hebrew, lending the material an unusual sound and rhythm. Howard Hanson’s How Excellent Thy Name, based on Psalm 8, is sensitive and quite exceptionally beautiful, with an especially attractive organ part. The disc concludes, perhaps inevitably, with The Lord Is My Shepherd (Psalm 23), here in a setting by Randall Thompson that emphasizes the pastoral nature of the words. The accompaniment for the chorus here is, interestingly, a harp: Thompson said organ, piano or harp could be used, and the choice of harp gives the piece a delicacy and ethereal quality that complements the sensitivity and balance of the chorus beautifully. Variegated the music on this disc certainly is, but all of it serves a higher purpose that can help all of us look beyond our current trials and tribulations and face the future with at least a modicum of added hope.
Louise Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, conducted by Christoph König. Naxos. $12.99.
The extent to which Beethoven expanded the notion of what a symphony could be hovered over other composers throughout much of the 19th century, reaching near-mythic levels in light of Brahms’ well-known reluctance to undertake anything symphonic while constantly feeling the Beethovenian shadow. Some composers, such as Spohr, tried to continue matters in more-or-less Beethovenian mode, with a good deal of success in their own time but not much afterwards. Others, such as Schubert, looked in new directions but had considerable difficulty finding them: Schubert’s propensity for starting symphonies and leaving them incomplete is well-known. Still others, such as Schumann, undertook symphonies only reluctantly and produced ones mixing Beethoven’s influence with some genuinely new touches. Yet others, such as Mendelssohn, produced unique symphonies that sidestepped Beethoven rather than moving beyond his music. And some, such as Hummel, avoided writing symphonies altogether.
Interestingly, when Brahms eventually produced his monumental First Symphony, he directly adopted elements of Beethoven while finding a way to expand and move beyond them: Brahms’ First is in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the finale of Brahms’ work clearly and deliberately echoes the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lesser symphonists than Brahms also found themselves drawn to C minor for their first work in the form: Mendelssohn’s First (which dates to 1824, while Beethoven was still alive) is in this key, and so is the first symphony (1841) by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Farrenc is a very fine composer who is being rediscovered largely because she was a successful woman musician at a time when it was extremely hard for women to gain acceptance in that area. But her music deserves to be heard more often for its own sake, not because of her gender: in addition to a variety of virtuosic works for piano (her own instrument, at which she excelled), Farrenc proved adept in creating chamber works and orchestral ones – including three symphonies.
Farrenc’s symphonies have the interesting characteristic of sounding a great deal like the works of other post-Beethoven symphonists while, at the same time, having a distinct totality that shows Farrenc placing her own stamp on the material. Her first symphony’s debt to Beethoven is apparent on a first hearing; its hints of Mendelssohn and Schumann become clearer afterwards; but it never seems merely derivative of any of these composers, with Farrenc blending drama and lyricism in her own distinctive way.
Naxos’ new recording of Farrenc’s Symphonies Nos. 2 (1845, in D) and 3 (1847, in G minor) shows the ways in which Farrenc developed symphonically as well as the ones in which she did not. The home keys of Farrenc’s first two symphonies are exactly those of Brahms’ first two, which were written decades later; but while Brahms’ Second solidifies something genuinely new in the symphonic realm, Farrenc’s Second mostly solidifies the impression left by her First – that of a skillful adopter and adapter of the approaches and techniques of other composers, someone able to absorb earlier and contemporary approaches to the symphony and give them her own stamp without, however, producing anything revolutionary or particularly forward-looking. Thus, Farrenc’s Second sounds like a combination of elements from Mozart and Beethoven: the attentiveness to winds is Mozartean (although not as far-reaching as in Schubert’s symphonies), while the seriousness with which the symphony announces itself through the slow introduction of its first movement proclaims a relationship with Beethoven. However, unlike Beethoven’s symphonies, which progress toward climactic finales, Farrenc’s second is front-weighted, the first movement being the longest and most significant. The most interesting movement, though, is the third, a Scherzo that takes cues from Beethoven but goes well beyond them into a level of drama and structural interest that set it apart not only from its basic model but also from Farrenc’s other Scherzo movements.
Farrenc’s Third also emphasizes its first movement, which also features a slow introduction followed by a well-developed, extended Allegro. Farrenc could well have known that the key of this symphony is the same as that of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – and Farrenc’s work, while it has no Mozartean intensity or contrapuntal mastery, does have some of the drive and minor-key insistence of Mozart’s work. As in all three of her symphonies, this one also has passing echoes of other composers’ work: here Mendelssohn and Schumann peek in from time to time. But there is also a Sturm und Drang quality to this symphony that makes it sound somewhat like the symphonies of another composer for whom Mendelssohn was a strong influence: Niels Gade (1817-1890). Yet here as in her other symphonies, Farrenc takes in material from other composers and works with it in a way that gives it her own stylistic stamp. These are not great symphonies or world-changing ones, but well-constructed post-Beethoven forays into a form that was not Farrenc’s primary focus but in which her work evinces considerable skill. Christoph König and the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, play the symphonies with unapologetic propulsiveness coupled with a willingness to let their many lyrical sections flow gently and smoothly, without delving into deeply emotional territory – that was not Farrenc’s province in these pieces. All the Farrenc symphonies are worth hearing, and in fact worth hearing repeatedly, by listeners interested in high-quality, less-known symphonic music of the 19th century.