November 12, 2020

(++++) VOCAL DISCOVERIES AND REDISCOVERIES

Bernard Herrmann: Whitman—Radio Play by Norman Corwin; Souvenirs de voyage; Psycho—A Narrative for String Orchestra. PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $11.99.

Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Saint Tichon Choir conducted by Benedict Sheehan. Capella Records. $29.98 (CD+Blu-ray disc).

Vivaldi: Il Tamerlano. Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $36.99 (3 CDs).

     There is a true treasure trove of lost or “misplaced” music out there, music of high interest and worthiness that has fallen out of favor or somehow escaped the notice of audiences because it has not caught the attention of performers. Never let it be said that the PostClassical Ensemble and Angel Gil-Ordóñez fear to go where few others do: rediscoveries and occasional new looks at more-familiar items are their stock-in-trade. Now they have turned up a couple of reconstructions of material by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) and rediscovered a lovely little chamber piece that dates from the 1960s but sounds as if it would fit neatly into the days of Impressionism. The featured work on PostClassical Ensemble’s new Naxos CD is the world première recording of a radio play called Whitman, which dates to 1944 and was reconstructed as recently as 2019 by Christopher Husted. The glory days of radio are long gone, and the whole concept of radio plays has been reduced to occasional references to sayings that they made famous (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”). In truth, Whitman does not stand up terribly well in the 21st century, partly because of its form and partly because Whitman himself, in Leaves of Grass (on which the play is based), seems altogether too naïve and simplistic (if not simple-minded) for our complex technological age. As a rather amiable curiosity, though, Whitman is worth hearing. William Sharp takes the Whitman role, which means he narrates most of the half-hour work, and there are minor interjections by Murray Horwitz and Annasophia Nicely. The poetic contents of the work’s 13 movements are mostly familiar ones (or ones that once were familiar) from Whitman’s poems: “I celebrate myself and sing myself,” “I will report all heroism from an American point of view.” The music is supportive in ways appropriate for radio but rather unconvincing from a concert-performance standpoint: the striding, marchlike “Battle,” the quiet uplift of “Miracles,” the yearning strings and church-bell-like sounds of “Divinity,” and so forth. Radio drama was illustrative – it had to be, in the absence of pictures – and Herrmann did a fine job of underlining, so to speak, the words of Whitman’s poems, which Sharp delivers with suitable plainspokenness. But just as film music, the form for which Herrmann is best known, tends to be less than stirring and rather obvious when heard on its own (with exceptions by, for example, Prokofiev), so the music for Whitman is not especially distinctive or interesting on its own terms. Of course, it was never really intended to be. Nor was the music for Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying 1960 film Psycho ever intended to be taken out of context – but actually, Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra, which dates to 1968 and was reconstructed in 1999 by John Mauceri, is more interesting to hear than is the music contained in Whitman. In fact, it is not necessary to know the film in order to appreciate this work; indeed, it may be better not to recall the movie when listening to this “narrative.” The reason is that this piece does not trace the movie’s events, is not a sequence of excerpts from the film, and in fact is a through-composed concert work that takes elements of Psycho and reimagines them in concert-hall format. It is rather effective at doing so, and the palpable enthusiasm with which PostClassical Ensemble throws itself into the work makes for a very involving listening experience. And there is involvement of a different, milder sort in the third work on this disc, Souvenirs de voyage (1967), a quintet here featuring David Jones (clarinet), Netanel Draiblate and Eva Cappelletti Chao (violins), Philippe Chao (viola), and Benjamin Capps (cello). This is mood music of the gentlest and most pleasant kind, its three movements all played at moderate tempos (Molto tranquillo, Andante and Andantino) and all conveying a sense of gentle warmth, smooth flow and geniality. This is quiet music of the “background” sort, its waves of sound lapping gently at listeners’ ears and sounding, in the finale, a bit like one of the sweetly yearning operetta pieces by Franz Lehár. The disc as a whole showcases not only Herrmann’s compositional skill but also the ability of Gil-Ordóñez and PostClassical Ensemble repeatedly to bring neglected material to life, or rather back to life.

     The liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (347?-407) is scarcely undiscovered by composers: indeed, it has inspired works by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Rachmaninoff, and numerous lesser composers. Most have been Russian, in light of the liturgy being a major part of the Byzantine Rite (Eastern Orthodox Church). But just as the written works of Chrysostom have, for better or worse, penetrated the thinking of believers worldwide – including not only his much-admired anaphora but also his vitriolic railings against and condemnations of Jews and homosexuals – so his liturgy has developed a worldwide influence, and not only in its Latin translation (which dates to the 1170s) but also in English. The 21st century has seen two notable English-language compositions based on this liturgy, by Kurt Sander (2016) and Benedict Sheehan (2018). Sheehan’s version is now available in an elegant and moving performance with the composer conducting the excellent Saint Tikhon Choir. The unusual two-disc set from Cappella Records includes both a CD and a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter offering three video performances: Cherubic Hymn and Communion Hymn – Psalm 148 from the work’s world première performance on May 26, 2019, and the entire two-hours-plus liturgical première as performed on October 20, 2019. The word “performance” does not fully or adequately describe this release. It is an altogether immersive experience, an opportunity for people of the Orthodox faith – or of pretty much any spiritual bent – to hear and become involved in music of subtlety and profound uplift, sung by a choir having both high artistic quality and strong devotion to the meaning and importance of the words it is singing. The specific text of Sheehan’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom will likely be less than familiar to many non-Orthodox listeners, but the basic structure of the work, with prayers for mercy interspersed with songs of praise and settings of several Psalms (102 and 145 as well as 148), is accessible and easy to follow. The very fine enunciation of the choir, and the skill with which Sheehan sets the words to make them understandable but not dully declamatory, result in a performance that is sensitive and moving throughout. Our age is far more secular than Chrysostom’s, but his words, like those of other important early Christians and church leaders, continue to speak to believers today – and when set as well as Sheehan sets them, and sung as beautifully as the Saint Tichon Choir sings them, they have the ability to reach beyond a core of believers to provide some much-needed emotional support for any audience that is willing to listen.

     There is a different sort of reaching back to the past in the new Naïve recording of Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano, which is the 10th entry in the Vivaldi Edition featuring Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone. This is the 65th release in the remarkable two-decade (and still counting) set of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. Il Tamerlano was first heard in 1735 and then essentially disappeared until it was revived under the title Il Bajazet as recently as 2005. The new recording uses a critical edition of the score created even more recently, in 2019, by Bernardo Ticci. The period instruments and historically informed performance practices in this performance – all essential elements of a series that has delivered remarkably consistent (and consistently high) quality for two decades – contribute to an atmosphere that re-creates the operatic experience of Vivaldi’s time in compelling fashion. The six solo singers’ thorough familiarity with vocal music and techniques of the 18th century result in a sound that is thoroughly appropriate for the material and highly impressive in its own right. Baritone Bruno Taddia as Bajazet, countertenor Filippo Mineccia as Tamerlano, contralto Delphine Galou as Asteria, mezzo-soprano Sophie Rennert as Irene, soprano Marina De Liso as Andronico, and soprano Arianna Vendittelli as Idaspe all deliver their lines with just the right mixture of solemnity and fervor in a work that Vivaldi specifically designated a tragedia per musica. It has to be said that the opera’s structure can be somewhat wearing, especially for listeners more accustomed to later, more-flowing operatic works: its three acts contain no fewer than 30 scenes, and the whole work is rather “talky,” even when characters are singing. There are the to-be-expected conflicts between love and duty, between imperial ambition and personal desire. And there is the underlying political intrigue associated with two different sets of Turks: the Uzbeks, led by Tamerlano, and Ottomans, led by Bajazet, who is Tamerlano’s prisoner. Il Tamerlano is a pastiche – a common form of opera in Vivaldi’s time, in which composers combined some music of their own with some by others – and its best-known aria, Irene’s Sposa son disprezzata, was probably written by Geminiano Giacomelli (1692-1740). Interestingly, it is fairly simple to follow the Vivaldi-composed material of Il Tamerlano by noting which characters are good (Vivaldi primarily wrote their music, as well as the recitatives – which actually advance the plot) and which characters are bad (Vivaldi gave them arias by other composers, not only Giacomelli but also Johann Adolf Hasse and Riccardo Broschi). The recording, or rather the Ticci edition it uses, is so complete that it even includes five arias sung at the 1735 performance but not appearing in the score. This is certainly admirable. But it is highly unlikely that Il Tamerlano will suddenly be revived on the world’s opera stages as a result of this recording: it is very much a work of its time, and in some ways is of more academic than entertainment interest. Still, the singing and playing here are so fine and so cognizant of performance expectations of Vivaldi’s era that this recording, like so many others in the Vivaldi Edition, will likely stand as definitive for quite some time to come.

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