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.

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