December 17, 2020


Rising w/The Crossing: Music of David Lang, Joby Talbot, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Dietrich Buxtehude, Paul Fowler, Alex Berko, Ted Hearne, and Santa Ratniece. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Jaap Nico Hamburger: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Ensemble Caprice conducted by Matthias Maute (No. 1); Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal conducted by Vincent de Kort (No. 2). Leaf Music. $18.99.

Jaap Nico Hamburger: Piano Concerto. Assaff Weisman, piano; Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal conducted by Vincent de Kort. Leaf Music. $13.99.

     Even in times less fraught with fear and death than the pandemic-riddled year of 2020, music can be an anodyne for existential angst and a soothing counter to the unending (and decidedly unmusical) drumbeat of worry, trouble and trauma. Rising w/The Crossing, a compilation of a dozen of the Philadelphia-based vocal ensemble’s live concert recordings, is designed for uplift and may well be a source of it for the singers themselves, although that does not necessarily translate into an equally positive experience for listeners. The highly intriguing opening track on this New Focus Recordings disc shows why: it is David Lang’s fascinating exploration of the flu pandemic that started in 1918, juxtaposing texts from a government document of the time with the names of Philadelphians who died from the disease. Called protect yourself from infection (Lang eschews capital letters in his titles), the work has the chorus saying “don’t get hysterical” and “beware of those who are coughing and sneezing” and “avoid crowded streetcars” and “walk to the office if possible,” all those phrases and others interspersed with names of the dead. The parallels between the advice of a century ago, when antibiotics and antivirals were nonexistent, and the similar recommendations of today, is eerie rather than reassuring, the message more one of how little things have changed than one of “we got through that and we will get through this.” The work is quite well-written but misfires badly if its intent is reassurance. Also on the disc are two Lang works from what he calls the national anthems. They are I. our land with peace and IV. keep us free. Again, the intent seems to be one of solidarity, showing that many nations share similar wishes and goals; but the effect is somewhat different, given words such as “we fight for peace” and music that ranges from the simplistic to the angular and rather intense. The entire disc inspires decidedly mixed emotions. The two most-calming works on it are ones that do not fit what The Crossing, a contemporary-music ensemble, usually does. They are Ad genua and Ad latus from Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri, and they have a simplicity, elegance and heartfelt sense of belief that combine to offer a true vision of hope – even if their religious context is less integral to life today than it was in Buxtehude’s time. One other composer heard on the disc is represented by more than a single work: Ēriks Ešenvalds, who contributes Translation and Earth Teach Me Quiet. The first of these, a chorale, fits well with the Buxtehude excerpt that it precedes. The second, a more-layered choral work with a sense of upward motion as well as quietude, follows the second Buxtehude work and also fits it well. Also on the CD are Lost Forever by Judy Talbot, a quiet and rather insistently depressive piece; First Pink by Paul Fowler, an expressive but fairly dour memorial work; Lincoln by Alex Berko, with disconnected words and phrases taken from an inscription at Washington National Cathedral but here rendered less than fully coherent; What It Might Say by Ted Hearne, another work written mostly in unison and mostly in melancholy fashion; and Horo horo hata hata by Santa Ratniece, which is filled with audio enhancements and alterations that undermine rather than improve the sound of The Crossing and which goes on much too long – lasting 10 minutes, it is the longest work on the 71-minute disc. As a whole, the CD shows the excellence of The Crossing as an ensemble and of Donald Nally as its conductor; but the “rising” theme of the disc’s title, although often reflected in the way the music is constructed, does not come through particularly well in terms of the words and meanings of most of the pieces.

     The intent of the two chamber symphonies by Canadian composer Jaap Nico Hamburger (born 1958) is not so much emotional or spiritual elevation as it is simple remembrance and the emotional qualities accompanying it. The first chamber symphony is called “Remember to Forget,” a phrase from the Old Testament designed to encourage people to move beyond troubles and errors instead of dwelling on them. A two-movement work – slower, then faster – it is inspired by the music of György Ligeti (1923-2006) and shows sensitivity to some of Ligeti’s coloristic effects. But it is not particularly convincing on its own terms – although the rhythmic abruptness of the Vivace comes across better than the rather bland Andante. The second chamber symphony is called “Children’s War Diaries” and refers to World War II, with each of its five movements given a different date: May 1940, May 1941, May 1943, May 1944, and February 1945. Although entirely instrumental, the work was inspired by five diaries of teenagers who did not survive the war. Here the music is less avowedly tied to the work of previous composers and has more of an individual voice. The extent to which it reflects each of the young victims’ writings is impossible to know, however. The first and second movements are written in fairly straightforward contemporary style; the third is far more directly emotive and includes some searching solo-violin material; the fourth mostly sounds like a quiet, resigned sonic palette; and the effects-laden fifth (percussion, pizzicati) is more troubled than triumphant. The movements are quite short, ranging from one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half minutes, and their impressions, although not really surface-level, disappear rather quickly. Indeed, this entire Leaf Music disc lasts only 32 minutes, and will likely be a worthwhile purchase only for listeners already familiar with and interested in Hamburger’s music or in modern Canadian classical material: although born in the Netherlands, Hamburger has lived and worked in Canada since 2000.

     Another Leaf Music disc of Hamburger’s music is even shorter: a mere 22 minutes. This one contains only the composer’s three-movement Piano Concerto, a work in which slow development is the primary impression: the first movement is Adagio, the third Molto Adagio, and only the second, Molto Allegro, offers livelier material. That second movement has Tchaikovskian elements in the handling of the piano and orchestra, but its overall impression is of somewhat warmed-over Prokofiev or Shostakovich. There are hints of sarcasm and poignancy, but little overall sense of bite. As for the slow outer movements, the first is primarily static, with some of the effect of small waves gently lapping at a shoreline; the third includes various solo-instrumental touches and a generalized sense of mystery, but it does not build to anything in particular and does not use the solo instrument in any especially satisfying way. The performances are quite fine on both Hamburger discs, but if Leaf Music really wanted to promote the material, it would have done much better to put everything on a single CD – which would still have run only 54 minutes – and perhaps have included some additional material to show other aspects of Hamburger’s work and abilities. As is, these recordings are really only for a very limited audience that is committed to the composer and/or contemporary Canadian classical material, and is willing to pay to subsidize the recording of works of this type.

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