December 03, 2020


Leo Brouwer: The Book of Imaginary Beings; Beatlerianas; Música Incidental Campesina. Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo (Michael Newman and Laura Oltman). MusicMasters. $8.99.

Amy Johnson: Portrait of an Artist. Amy Johnson, soprano; MAV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio. MSR Classics. $12.95.

A Very Renmen Christmas: Live! Renaissance Men conducted by Eric Christopher Perry. Navona. $14.99.

     Leo Brouwer (born 1939) has a fine mixture of elegance and wit in his two-guitar interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, and the Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo plays the four short movements with enthusiasm and fine musical understanding. Brouwer here portrays, or perhaps sketches, “The Unicorn,” “The Minotaur,” “Fairies and Gnomes,” and “The Gorgon and the Manticore.” Whether or not the guitar sound initially seems right for these particular beings, Newman and Oltman do a remarkable job of making their instruments fit Brouwer’s communicative prowess, whether in the insistent rush of the Minotaur, the delicate portrayal of fairies, or the intricacy used in “The Gorgon and the Manticore.” This is a short work, 16 minutes in all, that will make listeners wish Brouwer had musically painted more of Borges’ “beings” in a suite of greater length. There are two other brief offerings here as well – the entire CD runs just 28 minutes, which is a real shame. One selection includes two of Brouwer’s Beatlerianas, which are quite remarkable in their handling of “The Fool on the Hill” and “She’s Leaving Home,” two Beatles ballads that Brouwer shows convincingly to fit the two-guitar combo very well. Also here is the four-movement Música Incidental Campesina, a set of very little (one-minute) dancelike, interlude-like pieces (one actually labeled “Danza” and one “Interludio”). Brouwer has a very fine feel for the emotional range of which the guitar is capable, and he uses the two-guitar combination to fine effect throughout, sometimes doubling lines, sometimes having one instrument underline or contrast with what the other is presenting. The warmth of “Interludio,” for example, is all the more effective for being less often associated with the guitar than the more-expected chords and aural contrasts of “Final.” This MusicMasters disc whets the appetite for more two-guitar music by Brouwer, but unfortunately then abandons listeners all too soon: it is really too bad that there is not more of this very pleasant and exceptionally well-played material.

     Brouwer communicates the words of Borges’ book and the Beatles’ songs without actually using words, but words are essential for much other musical communication, including the nine operatic excerpts sung by Amy Johnson on a new MSR Classics disc. These are “operatic” even though they are not all from operas in the traditional sense. The eight composers range from Wagner (the marvelous Du Bist der Lenz from Die Walküre, which opens the CD) to Robert Livingston Aldridge (Sharon’s Entrance from Elmer Gantry, which closes it). Since this is a “profile” disc, the focus is on letting Johnson showcase her voice with backup from the MAV Symphony Orchestra under Steven Mercurio – enough backup, but nothing to overshadow the singer. Johnson proves to have a strong soprano that is a touch on the bland side, and that actually works to her advantage on this CD, because the material is so varied that a more strongly characterized voice would likely not negotiate all of it as successfully as she does. Johnson is especially well attuned, so to speak, to Richard Strauss, who is represented twice here, with Mein Elemer from Arabella and that perpetual soprano tour-de-force, the final scene from Salome – which could have used a little more sense of abandonment in the orchestral playing as the climax (sexual as well as musical) approaches, but which Johnson certainly sings with the rich mixture of strength and sultriness that Strauss called for. There is another extended scene in which she communicates equally effectively, from the first act of Janáček’s Kátá Kabanová. Johnson is also apparently attracted to some modern works that are outside the purview of many traditional opera singers, including One Little Lie from Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and Luigia’s Prayer from Anton Coppola’s Sacco and Venzetti. And she shows a good emotional range in the contrast between Nada Dura from Thea Musgrave’s Simón Bolívar and Dis-Moi que Je Suis Belle from Massenet’s Thaïs. This is quite a diverse repertoire, clearly intended to show Johnson’s range, and it does that effectively enough, although there is nothing here to indicate that she is absolutely world-class in the works of any specific composer or music of any specific type. Versatility seems to be the main thing Johnson offers, together with the ability to handle a variety of roles while feigning an appropriate range of emotions. There is an underlying oddity here, however: the disc was recorded as far back as 2009, and on that basis would seem to be a retrospective – but it comes across more as a scene-setter for what Johnson, who originally performed as a mezzo-soprano, would be doing in the higher vocal range. Whatever the CD’s intentions, it is an attractive grouping of material for a singer whose wide range of interests it reflects to good effect.

     The singing is of a different sort and from many eras on a seasonal Navona CD featuring the Renaissance Men under conductor Eric Christopher Perry. This is an eclectic and interesting collection of Christmas-related material. Some of it is familiar: the spiritual Mary Had a Baby, the upbeat and silly Frosty the Snowman, the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High, the maudlin I’ll Be Home for Christmas, the inevitable Jingle Bells, and the even more inevitable Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But the Renaissance Men also include some material that is not heard as often and that brings strengthened emotion into the musical mixture: Some Children See Him, with lyrics by Wihla Hutson and music by Alfred Burt; Cantate Domino, from Psalm 96, set by Paul John Rudoi; Riu Chiu, a traditional Spanish villancico; O Magnum Mysterium from the Matins, set by Jan Wilke; The Longest Night, with lyrics by Jane Griner and music by Daniel E. Gawthrop; Snowfall, with lyrics by Ruth Thornhill and music by Claude Thornhill; and, to avoid losing sight of the lighter side of the holiday season, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, with music and lyrics by John Rox. The arrangements feature different soloists in different vocal ranges, and the use of individual singers as well as small groups and the total ensemble leads to pleasant variation in the sound of the material, even when the music is thrice-familiar. This is a group that sings together smoothly and evenly, knowing just how to focus the words and where to put the emphases for dramatic and emotional effect; and the overall mixture of the sacred and the silly, the meaningful and well-nigh meaningless, results in a very pleasant recording that manages to balance the sacred and secular elements of the season better than many others do. This is strictly a seasonal release, however: it is quite unlikely to be played much, if at all, after the Christmas season has ended. But it ought to hold up well for Christmases in the future, given the timeless nature of much of the material and the very high quality of the singing that the Renaissance Men consistently provide.

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