March 10, 2022


Cantus: The COVID-19 Sessions. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Lux Aeterna. University of South Dakota Chamber Singers conducted by David Holdhusen. Navona. $14.99.

Re/Semblance: Saath-Saath—An India-China Musical Collaboration. Ansonica. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Songs of Japonisme: Early 20th-Century Art Songs from Japan and the West. Sahoko Sato Timpone, mezzo-soprano; Kenneth Merrill, piano. Sheva Collection. $10.

A Mexican Christmas. The Newberry Consort and EnsAmble Ad-Hoc. Navona. $14.99.

John Aylward: Celestial Forms and Stories. Klangforum Wien. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The fight against the depredations, artistic and otherwise, of the COVID-19 pandemic, has taken many forms, with the use of the human voice an especially telling way to assert that this too shall, eventually, pass. That is the assertion implicit in a new Signum Classics recording featuring the smooth blending, careful phrasing and emotional attentiveness that are the hallmarks of the vocal ensemble Cantus. The music is very much a mixed bag: Cantus often performs such pieces heard on this disc as Sibelius’ Finlandia, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, and Ysaÿe M. Barnwell’s Wanting Memories, but other works among the 19 heard here appear on the CD because they were planned for inclusion in tours that were cancelled because of COVID-related shutdowns. Since there is no particular overall conception for this release beyond its relationship to pandemic-caused problems, the CD is really a kind of “Cantus sampler” for people who either know and admire the group’s work already, or would be interested in making its acquaintance in varied repertoire. The variety is certainly present and is often a touch disconcerting, as when Hugo Alfvén’s Gryning vid havet is immediately followed by an arrangement of Shenandoah, which is succeeded by Hildegard von Bingen’s O Frondens Virga. So different are the works that Cantus performs here that the CD’s overall effect is of a kind of dislocation – something that certainly reflects feelings about the pandemic, but is not the intent of the singers, whose whole focus is on warmth and togetherness rather than uncertainty and turmoil. This is, all in all, an odd disc, filled with very fine and heartfelt singing but having no unifying foundation other than the pandemic during which the CD was recorded. Of course, in a sense COVID-19 has brought billions of people together – in misery and unhappiness. This Cantus release does not fully balance the negatives, but at least it is on the positive side of the scale.

     The University of South Dakota Chamber Singers are not quite as polished as Cantus, but their new Navona CD has greater thematic solidity and a stronger focus that is largely spiritual and faith-based, with no direct pandemic connection except in the implication that belief can help guide us through this (and any) time. Some of the 15 tracks on this CD have interesting parallels with those on the Cantus disc. The South Dakota singers offer their own Ave Maria, the very old and beautiful one by Josquin des Prez. This CD includes O Salutaris Hostia by Ēriks Ešenvalds, whose Stars appears on the Cantus recording. And the South Dakota singers offer several arrangements of traditional songs, as Cantus does. Interestingly, while Cantus chooses to end its disc with something intended as soothing – Billy Joel’s Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel) – David Holdhusen leads his group at the CD’s conclusion with something much closer to “revival” music: Ben Allaway’s Wake Up, Ollie Brown! The overall impression created by the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers is one mixing calm acceptance and earnest prayer with upbeat spirituality – a combination that, although not directed specifically at all the trouble and trauma that COVID-19 has wrought, can serve as one effective coping strategy.

     It would be pleasant to find out that music can serve as a bridge between nations and cultures, as well as a satisfying counter to negative societal events along the lines of COVID-19. This is a bit too much to hope for on behalf of any art, but certainly composers and performers alike are willing to try, and try again, to counteract sociopolitical hostility with affirmations of the humanity that transcends national and cultural boundaries. This is the feeling that underlies a new two-CD Ansonica Records release with the somewhat unwieldy title of Re/Semblance: Saath-Saath. Like many other well-meaning projects, this one is quite complex in origin and requires interested listeners to spend some time unraveling the intent of the concept and understanding what the participants hope to accomplish. Only with considerable grounding in the background of the endeavor can an audience hope to penetrate its sometimes obscure outer layers and absorb the intended lessons and messages within. Saath-Saath, for example, means “together-together” in Hindustani, but the repetition of the word – which shows its importance – is found in Cantonese or Mandarin. So this part of the title itself reflects a joining of the Indian and the Chinese. Re/Semblance is “resemblance” in its usual meaning of “similarity,” split as a word to focus both on “re” (again) and “semblance” (apparent appearance or, in this case, sound). The recording includes two CDs, labeled “Shanghai” and “Hong Kong” respectively. The first, recorded near Shanghai, includes six vocal tracks presented by Indian and Chinese singers and instrumental performers. One piece is based on a Kazakh folk song that is popular in Mandarin; another is based on a work by a 15th-century Indian poet; another uses Hindustani music plus a Chinese instrument. The second CD includes 10 tracks, seven of them based on poems by the Cantonese writer Chow Yiu-Fai. The provenance of the tracks is often very complex – one, for example, is a translation into Cantonese words and phrases whose tones match the notes of a melody composed in India. Back and forth, back and forth, the Indian and Chinese elements of the music flow, with an ease that belies the very real disagreements between India and China that have often brought the nations to the threshold of war. A listener interested specifically in the cultural similarities and differences between these two nations will find Re/Semblance: Saath-Saath a thoroughly fascinating project. Anyone with only a casual familiarity with the material, or anyone interested in the music of these nations (separately or together) for its own sake, will likely find the whole project overly abstruse and complex.

     To be sure, international musical cross-pollination is nothing new. In Western music, for example, Chinese poetry is the foundational basis of one of Mahler’s greatest works, Das Lied von der Erde – although Mahler knew the poems only in translation. But in fact, the early 20th century, when Mahler flourished, was a period in which many Occidental composers had considerable interest in the Orient – as Sahoko Sato Timpone and Kenneth Merrill show on a new Sheva Collection recording. There are no fewer than 19 works here, created by eight composers – the most-interesting and most-unexpected piece being Nipponari by Bohuslav Martinů. His “Seven Song Settings of Japanese Poetry for Female Voice and Piano” are actually settings in Czech, with traditional European tempo markings: the first five are in moderate tempos and the last two considerably slower (Largo religioso and Grave). Without knowing either Japanese or Czech, it is still entirely possible to follow the cadences of the poetry and the emotions it intends to produce, as Martinů’s sensitive, introverted settings evoke and then explore a world of dream and wistfulness. Also here is a short and surprisingly effective Japanisches Regenlied by Joseph Marx. The composers of the remaining works will likely be wholly unknown to the vast majority of Occidental listeners. All lived through the early 20th century and discovered their own ways of employing Japanese material in their individual contexts. Yoritsune Matsudaira, Kiyoshi Nobutoki, Kōsaku Yamada, Kiyoshi Komatsu, Francesco Santoliquido, and Kunihiko Hashimoto all show a strong interest in Japanese words and expressions, with settings varied according to each composer’s interpretation of the underlying material: Matsudaira includes a clarinet in Asakusa Overture, for example, while the Italian Santoliquido chooses French as the language for three very short poems, each lasting less than one minute. Rarefied this material certainly is, but it is not as abstruse as the India-China intermingling project and can be heard and enjoyed entirely for its own sake, as an exploration of one particular set of influences on vocal music in the early 20th century.

     COVID-19 and matters of international cross-pollination are somewhat unusual foundations for vocal exploration, but there are plenty of other underlying themes that can be used to present pleasant, interesting and meaningful vocal works. The Navona CD called A Mexican Christmas is a good example. And it is not what a listener seeing the disc for the first time might expect. It is an offering of a dozen Christmas-related Mexican vocal works from the 16th and 17th centuries – scarcely a time period that audiences unfamiliar with Mexican musical history are likely to know well. There are eight composers represented here, with four works by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (ca. 1590-1664), two by Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739), two by Gaspar Fernández (1566-1629), and one each by José De Cáseda (1691-1716), Fray Jerónimo Gonzalez (flourished 1633), Joan Cererols Montserrat (1618-1680), and Juan García De Zéspedes (1619-1678; his date of death is wrongly given on the disc as 1628). The variety of the music is intriguing: some of the works clearly have liturgical purposes, while others were intended as festive, celebratory street songs. And the instrumentation reflects the differences among the pieces: in addition to bassoon, organ, violin, viola da gamba, harp, Baroque guitar, and percussion, some of the pieces use the guitar-like jarana and similar but low-pitched leona. The inclusion of these traditional Mexican instruments does not give the music an overtly “exotic” sound in the way that the inclusion of traditional Indian and Chinese instruments does on the Re/Semblance recording. Instead, the use of jarana and leona along with more-familiar instruments deepens the ties between these specific Christmas-themed pieces and the nation where they were created. The singers pronounce the words clearly and sing with appropriately enthusiastic or devotional phrasing. The Newbery Consort heard here uses four sopranos and three altos; EnsAmble Ad-Hoc includes two sopranos and two altos. One tenor and one bass also participate. Certainly this is a specialty disc as well as a seasonal one, but it is also an unusual compilation of well-made music from a time period in Mexican history that is not very frequently explored artistically outside the country itself.

     It is worth noting that some vocal inspirations can lead, interestingly, to entirely non-vocal works, whose composers believe the underlying verbal material is better communicated through purely instrumental means. That is the attitude of John Aylward in his Celestial Forms and Stories, a set of five pieces performed by members of Klangforum Wien on a New Focus Recordings CD. As so often in contemporary music, an understanding of the basis of the compositional approach is necessary for listeners to have a full appreciation of the material. The works are based on Greek myths, an apparently still-inexhaustible source of thoughtfulness, learning and amusement. But Aylward’s approach is, by design, two steps removed from the original myths. First of all, he works from a Roman retelling of the stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Secondly and more significantly, Aylward’s interest is not in the tales themselves but in Italo Calvino’s analysis and interpretation of them. Thus, a listener who hopes fully to absorb the ideas and approaches of Celestial Forms and Stories needs to be familiar with Greek myth, Roman retellings of Greek myth, and Calvino’s approach to Roman retellings of Greek myths. This is a lot to ask of an audience, although no more than other composers today seem to consider their due (or their works’ due). The question for listeners is whether the music, so remote from the words that inspired it, is a worthwhile experience – indeed, whether hearing the music on its own will encourage listeners to learn more about its foundations, explore them, and then re-hear what Aylward has created. Listeners who start with the music itself will find out for themselves how deeply they want to go into Aylward’s source material and his worldview. On the CD, Daedalus (2016), for clarinet, flute, violin and cello, is the usual contemporary mixture of plucked and stroked and glissando-ed notes, initially individuated and later given at greater length. Mercury (2014), for the same instruments, has none of the speed and sprightliness usually associated with this god (as in, for example, Holst’s “winged messenger” movement in The Planets), although it does have enough shifting of sound and harmonic lines to deserve to be called mercurial. Ephemera (2014) is a duet for clarinet and cello: these two warm-sounding and emotionally trenchant instruments are here used in ways that undermine their typical sound, creating a work of textural dialogue that is wholly without lyricism. Narcissus (2018) is for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and percussion, and uses an unsurprising structure in which different-sounding, differently grouped instruments are heard in opposition (but not really in reflection, which might be expected in a work of this title). Ananke (2019) uses a single percussion instrument, the piano, rather than a group of them, but otherwise has the same instrumentation as Narcissus. Ananke was the goddess of inevitability and had, in a sense, more power than the other gods, although not in as dark a way in Greek myths as is the case with the overall structure of Norse legends. With inevitability comes a level of compulsion, if not quite predetermination; and in this piece, the most interesting of the five heard here, Aylward has the music veer hither and thither, confusingly but compellingly, with short phrases contrasted with longer ones and a quiet, moody section followed immediately by a bright, intense one. The question for listeners is whether Ananke and/or the other works here stand effectively on their own as music, or whether it is only through understanding and exploring Aylward’s foundational verbal inspiration that it is possible to get as much out of the music as he has put into it. The reasonable followup question, to which each listener will have to form a personal answer, is whether further exploration sufficiently enhances the musical experience to be worth the time spent studying and investigating the roots of Celestial Forms and Stories.

No comments:

Post a Comment