December 23, 2021


Benedict Sheehan: Vespers. The Saint Tikhon Choir conducted by Benedict Sheehan. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Vivaldi: Cantate per soprano I. Arianna Vendittelli, soprano; Abchordis Ensemble conducted by Andrea Buccarella. Naïve. $16.99.

Mexican Song Cycles by Roberto Bañuelas, Manuel Ponce, Luis Sandi, Eduardo Hernández Moncada, José Rolón, and Rodolfo Halffter. Juan Carlos Mendoza, tenor; Jessica Monnier, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Canadian Brass: Canadiana. Brandon Ridenour and Caleb Hudson, trumpets; Jeff Nelson, horn; Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone; Chuck Daellenbach, tuba. Linus Entertainment. $15.99.

     It is safe to say that contemporary sacred choral music is not to all listeners’ tastes. But it is also safe to say that this type of music has a strong attraction for its admittedly limited audience. The reasons for this are apparent in the new Cappella Records recording of Benedict Sheehan’s Vespers. The Saint Tikhon Choir, led by the composer, is fluid and fluent throughout this impressive hour-long work, inspired by Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. This is expressive music of subtlety and considerable beauty, and it is not necessary to know Rachmaninoff’s work to appreciate Sheehan’s – although knowing the inspiration for Sheehan’s Vespers does deepen the experience of listening to this recording. Sheehan’s use of frequently changing meters, with frequently altered strong and weak beats, marks his Vespers as a modern composition, but the essentially Romantic harmonies show this piece and its composer to have a firm grasp of musical as well as liturgical tradition. And Sheehan has an impressive feeling for the meaning behind the words he sets: he favors the inclusion of complete Psalms rather than portions of them, at various points presenting Psalms 103, 140, 141, 92 and 33. He also has intriguing ways of turning this hour of choral music into an aural experience almost as varied as would be that of a chorus with instrumental accompaniment. He does this by clever use of solos and small groups within the broader choral landscape – the three male voices in Blessed Is the Man, for example, and the use of a countertenor soloist in The Lord Is King. For that matter, Sheehan effectively contrasts vocal ranges, using both countertenor and baritone in The Opening Psalm. Liturgically, there are both differences and parallels between this Vespers setting and the more-familiar Western versions of words and music on the same topics: Ave Maria here becomes Rejoice, O Virgin, for example. But the declamatory passages of Sheehan’s work, such as  Interlude: The Trisagion Prayers, make an immediate connection with listeners even if the specific words and forms are likely to be less-known to a Western audience. Both the religious sincerity and the adept musical handling of the material come through quite clearly in all 13 portions of Sheehan’s Vespers, and if the work may not have significant reach in a largely secular world and largely secular century, it nevertheless speaks feelingly of revealed thoughts and truths that transcend any specific age and that, through Sheehan’s heartfelt music, reach out toward eternal verities.

     If Sheehan’s Vespers is an affirmatively sacred work in a largely secular age, Vivaldi’s 30 or so cantatas, mostly for soprano and basso continuo, were worldly at a time of much stronger religious feeling. That was 300 years ago: Vivaldi wrote these works mainly in the 1720s and 1730s. Six of them receive excellent performances by soprano Arianna Vendittelli and the Abchordis Ensemble under Andrea Buccarella on Volume 68 of Naïve’s very expansive “Vivaldi Edition” collection. The point of this multi-decade-long endeavor is to record about 450 Vivaldi works found in the National University Library of Turin – many of the works known from their appearance elsewhere, but just as many (if not more) having languished in obscurity for three centuries. Vivaldi is familiar to listeners, including many not otherwise interested in classical music, for a handful of purely instrumental works, the four concertos of The Four Seasons chief among them. But he was a highly prolific composer of vocal music as well, and his operas show him to have had a fine sense of the dramatic (within the structures and strictures of his time). The six cantatas sung by Vendittelli – RV 650, 652, 669, 667, 660 and 665 – are easy to hear as opera in miniature, or rather as individual scenas from larger (albeit nonexistent) works. Each of the pieces uses a mixture of recitative and aria to create a single impression that would fit quite well into a more-extended stage work. Vendittelli clearly knows this: she has previously appeared in the Vivaldi Edition recordings of the operas Il Giustino and Il Tamerlano. She has a bright, slightly tight voice that makes the recitatives especially compelling, and a command of ornamentation that turns the arias into real display pieces. Her pronunciation – a sometimes overlooked element of performance of works like these – is exceptional, the words as well as the mood of the cantatas coming through quite clearly. And her high register is quite equal to Vivaldi’s requirements, which can be considerable (as toward the end of Allor che lo sguardo, RV 650). The ups and downs of love are the main topic of these cantatas, and Vendittelli – ably abetted by Buccarella, who plays the harpsichord in addition to directing the ensemble – brings forth all the works’ sometimes-over-the-top emotional intensity. The sadness of Aure, voi più non siete, RV 652, for example, contrasts very effectively indeed with the bright and upbeat (and bassoon-accompanied) Tra l’erbe i zeffiri, RV 669, while the high drama of Sorge vermiglia in ciel la bella Aurora, RV 667, is as clear in its first, moderately paced aria, as in its far more intense second. The exceptional performance quality throughout the Vivaldi Edition makes any disc in the sequence worth hearing, although admittedly a great deal of the material – including the cantatas on this new CD – is somewhat on the rarefied side.

     Even more specialized vocal material is heard on an MSR Classics recording featuring Mexican song cycles written within the last century. Neither this music nor these composers will likely be familiar to the vast majority of potential listeners, which means the 33 songs on the CD – ably sung by Juan Carlos Mendoza with piano accompaniment by Jessica Monnier – must stand or fall almost entirely on their own, not (in most cases) on the reputation of those who created them. Just as Vivaldi used the musical expectations and forms of his time to convey emotions in ways suitable for his audiences, so do these post-revolutionary composers (the revolution ended in 1917) use the methods of their era to put across their feelings at a time when Mexican music was striving to move beyond European models (although not beyond European influence, by any means). To varying degrees, these seven song cycles by six composers (two are by Manuel Ponce) are Impressionistic, expressive, Romantic, dissonant, folkloric and straightforward. The cycles contain between three songs and seven, and there are poetic connections among the songs to a greater extent than there are musical ones. There are surprises here and there, such as the insistent dissonance of Romance de la luna, luna by Roberto Bañuelas; the uncomplicated prettiness of Desciende el valle by Manuel Ponce; the effectiveness at very brief length, just one minute and a minute and a half, respectively, of La hora tranquila and La batalla by Luis Sandi; and the ultra-miniaturization of the set called Dibujos Sobre un Puerto by José Rolón, which has seven songs in less than six minutes. Mendoza sings all the works with feeling, and Monnier’s pianism contributes significantly to the effects of the songs, the keyboard often taking an equal and sometimes even more-prominent role than does the voice. These songs contain elements of European-style lieder as well as folk-music and popular-music elements, crossing genres in an unassuming way that shows the exploratory nature of Mexican vocal music at the time these cycles were created.

     Genre-crossing has become far more deliberate and extensive for many more-recent composers, and sometimes it can involve not only different forms of music but also a different way of approaching vocal works. In the case of the new Linus Entertainment CD featuring the Canadian Brass, the ensemble’s usual silky-smooth playing and underlying sense of humor are at the service of 11 vocal works that are here essentially turned into non-vocal ones. The underlying assumption is that listeners are already quite familiar with the original versions of these songs by Lara Fabian, Shawn Mendes, k.d. lang, Joni Mitchell, deadmau5, Drake, Rush, Daniel Cesar/H.E.R, Bruce Cockburn, and Leonard Cohen. Without that familiarity, the disc makes little sense, although the sheer quality of the brass playing certainly comes through clearly enough. The CD’s title, Canadiana, reflects the fact that all the original songs were by Canadian artists, and this is the first all-Canadian disc the Canadian Brass has released since its founding in 1970. Listeners for whom those nationalistic and historical elements matter will of course be mightily pleased by this release, and readily forgive the fact that it is very short, lasting not even 45 minutes. A wider audience will not likely be swayed by the Canadian-ness of the material, but there are other reasons to find the CD attractive. For example, Cockburn himself participates on guitar in his Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon, a track that does include his vocals, and the Canadian Brass is joined in Rush’s Overture 2112 by Sean Kelly (guitar) and Tim Timleck (percussion). A couple of the songs here are exceptionally well-known and therefore extra-interesting to hear in these brass versions: Both Sides, Now by Mitchell and Hallelujah by Cohen. As for the remaining material, it is uniformly well-played and nicely arranged, but its attractiveness depends on how well a listener knows and likes the originals and is interested in hearing them in different guise. The CD includes Je Me Souviens, Señorita, Constant Craving, I Remember, Laugh Now Cry Later, Best Part, and 13th Mountain, and anyone for whom any of those titles is not instantly recognizable is likely not a member of the intended audience for the CD. It is those who are highly devoted to the original songs, those who may well find themselves singing along with the Canadian Brass versions of them, for whom this disc is clearly designed.

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