January 28, 2021


Paolo Marchettini: Mercy; The Months Have Ends; Notturno; Concertino; Aere perEnnius. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Herbert Howells: Requiem; Palestrina: Sicut Cervus; Howard Hanson: Prayer of the Middle Ages; Stephen Paulus: Pilgrims’ Hymn; Traditional: Down to the River to Pray; The Wayfaring Stranger. RĂ©sonance conducted by A. Barron Breland. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Composers’ decisions on combining instruments, including voices, constitute unique musical signatures that make individual pieces, as well as their creators, distinctive. The six Paolo Marchettini works on a new CD from New Focus Recordings certainly have elements in common, both as strengths and as weaknesses, but also show Marchettini’s differing approaches to the use of instrumentation, depending on what he is trying to communicate. Three works on the disc are entirely orchestral: Mercy, Notturno, and Aere perEnnius. All are most effective in their darker, more atmospheric elements, which open Mercy and Aere perEnnius and constitute the whole of Notturno. Those elements are integral to the music in ways that come through clearly no matter what ensemble performs the material: Mercy features the Orchestra della Toscana conducted by Francesco Lanzillotta; Notturno is played by the MSM Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Gilbert; and Aere perEnnius is offered by Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta conducted by Gabriele Bonolis. The most-effective of the works is Notturno, its mood remaining uneasy and mysterious throughout. This is the shortest of the three pieces – a fact that helps explain its impact. Marchettini tries to do more with the other works, with Mercy becoming increasingly complex and emphatic before returning to the sensibility of its opening, while Aere perEnnius seeks rather cinematic emotional intensification before, again, returning to its opening mood. Marchettini handles the orchestra skillfully in all three works, but his attempts to pull additional color and expanded sonorities from specific sections of the ensemble (and of the longer pieces) are not as emotionally convincing as his somberly lyrical material. Marchettini seeks even more variability of effect in his Concertino for clarinet and orchestra, which he performs as soloist with the MSM Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. This seven-movement work gives Marchettini plenty of opportunities to show his skill as a performer – and to showcase the wide range of notes and emotions of which the clarinet is capable – but the overall impact of the music is rather underwhelming. Concertino is the kind of piece that will certainly appeal to performers, given its near-constant calls for virtuosity and sensitive playing; but it does not have much to say to an audience beyond offering a sonic environment for its own sake. It is impressive to hear once but does not have much staying power for listeners. And the other work on this CD, The Months Have Ends, is even more disappointing. This would logically seem to be a highly emotive piece, setting five poems by Emily Dickinson for soprano and orchestra. But Alda Caiello – accompanied by the Orchestra della Toscana under Carlo Rizzari – does not make much of a case for the poetry; or rather, Marchettini does not ask her to do so. The settings range from the self-consciously screechy (the opening “Wild nights”) to arrangements that seem intended to be evocative but are simply unconvincing, with Caiello’s so-so enunciation mixing rather uneasily with Marchettini’s orchestrations. There is considerable variety in the Dickinson poems set here, which include After great pain, A train, I shall keep singing! and the poem that gives the overall work its title. But there is a sameness and a sense of pushing the material too hard throughout this work: it never conveys the emotions expressed by Dickinson with anything like the clarity of the words themselves.

     The vocal communication is far clearer in a series of works performed on MSR Classics by the vocal ensemble RĂ©sonance under the direction of A. Barron Breland. Here the combinatorial aspect relates entirely to the voices. The blending and contrasting elements of the vocals are quite apparent in the first two works on the CD, arrangements of the traditional spirituals Down to the River to Pray and The Wayfaring Stranger. The heartfelt delivery of these pieces fits well with the two that follow, Sicut Cervus by Palestrina (1525-1594) and Prayer of the Middle Ages by Howard Hanson (1896-1991) – a juxtaposition that seems odd on its face but, thanks to the sensitive ensemble work, in fact comes across effectively despite the pieces’ differing harmonic languages. All these works constitute an introduction of sorts to Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), which takes up more than half of the very short length of this disc (the whole of which runs just 36½ minutes). Like Hanson, Howells is sensitive both to the time period in which he is composing and to those that came before. Howells’ Requiem does not use the traditional elements of works with this title, instead splitting “Requiem Aeternam” into two short parts and mixing them with “Salvatore Mundi,” Psalms 23 and 121, and finally “I Heard a Voice from Heaven,” an English-language conclusion whose insistence on uplift is somewhat overdone despite being well-sung by soloists and chorus alike. The overall effect of the Howells work is uplifting but strangely devoid of overt religiosity, despite the topic and choice of texts. This Requiem produces a feeling of peacefulness and warmth rather than a prayer to a Creator on behalf of those who have left their earthly existence. The CD concludes with Pilgrims’ Hymn by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), which combines some of the feeling of the traditional spirituals with that of Howells’ Requiem. Like everything on the CD, Paulus’ work is very well-sung, with warmth aplenty and fine blending of voices. The overall title of the disc is “Pilgrimage,” although there is not really much sense of spiritual progress here, the works all being on or aimed at a higher plane from start to finish. Furthermore, if there is travel, it is strictly short-distance, given the brevity of the disc. Fans of fine choral performance will nevertheless find a plenitude of enjoyment here, if perhaps not as much of a journey toward spirituality as the CD’s title would indicate.

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