December 08, 2022


Robert Kyr: All-Night Vigil. Photini Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm, sopranos; Richard Barrett, Mark Powell and David Stutz, vocals; Sarah Beaty, alto; John Cox and Leslie Green, tenors; Benjamin España and David Krueger, basses; Cappella Romana conducted by Alexander Lingas. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation; John Tavener: Ikon of Light. Cappella Romana and 45th Parallel Universe conducted by John Michael Boyer. Cappella Records. $24.99 (2 SACDs).

William Baines: Five Songs; Paradise Gardens; The Naïad; Silverpoints; Tides; The Island of the Fay; Pictures of Light; Eight Preludes; Robin Walker: At the Grave of Williams Baines. Gordon Pullin, tenor; Duncan Honeybourne, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Richard Danielpour: Four Angels; James Lee III: Quintet; Ben Shirley: High Sierra Sonata; Valerie Coleman: Shotgun Houses. Anthony McGill, clarinet; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $16.

John Adams: Hallelujah Junction; Fang Man: Two Colors; John Corigliano: Kaleidoscope; John Fitz Rogers: Ad Lucem; William Bolcom: The Garden of Eden—selections.  Lomazov-Rackers Piano Duo (Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers). MSR Classics. $14.95.

     It has become somewhat easier in recent years for contemporary music to get an initial performance, with many groups and venues interested in presenting material not heard before. Getting a second performance remains difficult, however: the willingness to try something once does not always translate into a willingness to program it repeatedly. And the chance to get an initial recording of a new work, or for that matter a rediscovered piece, often remains elusive: recordings can reach far more people than recitals or concerts, but they require production, sales and marketing, and distribution, and can represent sizable investments. This has led to differing schools of thought on bringing new material into recorded form: in some cases, world première recordings include only a work never heard in recorded form before, while in others, the idea is to mix first recordings with offerings of works that have been recorded before and presumably can draw interested listeners to never-before-recorded material – akin to the way some concerts and recitals deliberately mix something brand-new with material with which the audience is likely to be familiar. Two excellently performed but limited-audience-reach Cappella Romana SACD recordings on the group’s own label showcase the dual approaches neatly. All-Night Vigil by Robert Kyr (born 1952) is an English-language work inspired by Rachmaninoff’s 1915 setting of 15 selections from the Orthodox version of the Resurrection. The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil is a tour de force for choirs and a highly impressive piece of liturgical writing, although by definition it reaches out only to a limited listenership – both because of its subject matter and because of its language. Kyr sets English versions of exactly the same 15 selections chosen by Rachmaninoff, treating everything respectfully and with deep sincerity – and creating settings that fully explore the gorgeous sounds of which Cappella Romana is consistently capable. Although organized religion has been in decline in many nations for decades, and the Orthodox liturgy is little-known in countries such as the United States, the warmth, depth and sincerity of the singing in Kyr’s All-Night Vigil transcend the unfamiliarity of the material. The vocal sound here is simply beautiful: there is a full hour of elegantly phrased, emotionally penetrating, deeply sincere delivery both of choral material and of individual lines against a choral background. Some of the work’s most-appealing elements come in Kyr’s setting of a single voice against a choral background, as in O Joyful Light, where the chorus serves as the background against which solo voices stand out with tremendous clarity – this piece, No. 4 in the total work, sounds like a painting. Other settings are handled with equal thoughtfulness and skill: Glory to God in the Highest starts in the low voices before the high ones enter, for example, and My Soul Magnifies the Lord is set with deliberate verbal expansiveness that reflects the text. Kyr clearly understands this material and feels it deeply; and while his All-Night Vigil will be fully effective only for listeners versed in the Orthodox version of the Resurrection, or ones highly familiar with Rachmaninoff’s handling of the same verses, it cannot be denied that the sheer sound of this impressive choral work offers an experience of beauty and uplift from start to finish.

     The other new Cappella Romana release is on two SACDs, and combines the world première recording of Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation with a piece that has been made available in recorded form before, Ikon of Light by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013). Heaven and Earth is a collaborative work among Orthodox choral composers Tikey Zes (born 1927), Alexander Khalil (born 1969), Kurt Sander (born 1969), Matthew Arendt (born 1976), Richard Toensing (1940-2014), and John Michael Boyer (born 1978) – with Boyer conducting the piece. All the music is derived from the so-called Creation Psalm, No. 103 (LXX in the Septuagint) – an extended recitation of all the things done by the Lord “clothed with honor and majesty” and covered “with light as with a garment.” Although the composers’ treatment of the textual material differs – there are, for example, notable stylistic differences between “He Waters the Mountains” (Khalil) and the following “He Made the Moon” (Sander) – the use of the same underlying text provides a measure of unity to the piece, and the smooth and assured delivery of Cappella Romana keeps the work meaningful and communicative throughout. It is not, however, quite as effective as Tavener’s piece for choir and string trio, in which the interweaving and contrasting sounds of the voices and the instruments played by 45th Parallel Universe are consistently involving and often fascinating. Ikon of Light is majestic, generally slow-paced, pervaded by a contagious sense of calm that creates an experience of time expansion, in which the work seems to grow beyond its 44-minutes duration. There is a near-mystical concept for the string trio, which is supposed to be placed at a distance from the singers and intended to represent the soul yearning for the Holy Spirit – which is invoked most strongly in the fourth and by far longest of the seven movements (taking up almost half the length of the total piece), “Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit.” Tavener’s work is one of enormous sincerity and meaningfulness for those inclined in the direction of Orthodox teachings or, really, any organized form of Christianity, never mind the many doctrinal differences among adherents. The presentation of Ikon of Light is thoroughly impressive, and if this work’s excellence of creation and performance makes it more likely that listeners, even a subset of listeners, will become interested in the never-before-recorded Heaven and Earth, so much the better for all this music.

     The sole vocal entry on a new Divine Art CD featuring music of the short-lived William Baines (1899-1923: a victim of tuberculosis) is also the only world première recording on the disc. For Five Songs, Gordon Pullin’s well-modulated tenor voice merges expressively with Duncan Honeybourne’s piano. Four of these five songs last less than two minutes, the fifth only two-and-a-half, and these miniatures are very much of their time: they are Impressionistic, pleasant, with some well-done tone-painting (especially in the second, Fern Song), but are ultimately not particularly consequential – although Baines’ determination to keep the words clearly audible while having the piano paint scenic backgrounds is admirable. The remaining works on the disc, although not world premières, are somewhat more substantive, at least in toto – none of them individually stands out as exceptional music-making except the first and longest, Paradise Gardens, an expressive and well-paced10-and-a-half-minute journey to and exploration of a pleasantly manicured outdoor world. The Naïad and The Island of the Fay are single-movement portrayals of their subject matter that use the piano effectively, showing considerable command of the instrument’s expressive potential. The other pieces here are multi-movement suites: Silverpoints has four portrayals, Tides two, Pictures of Light three, and each of the Eight Preludes conjures up a different small scene (six of the eight bear specific titles). Baines is shown here as a miniaturist with harmonic and expressive orientations similar to those of other composers of the early 20th century, such as Debussy and Ravel. His ability to evoke a scene within a few minutes is impressive, and if much of this material is of the salon-music type, it is not really “light” music but is expressive and heartfelt, clearly exemplifying its time period if not really exploring new directions or dimensions. The CD ends with an extended “tribute” piece called At the Grave of William Baines by Robin Walker (born 1953). At 16 minutes, it is longer than any of the Baines works on the disc, and this is not to its benefit: Walker’s gestures are largely expected, his dissonances unexceptional and quite foreign to Baines’ own idiom, and Walker’s piece lacks any sense of devotion to or comprehension of the type of music and expressiveness present in Baines’ own piano music as offered here.

     The works on a new Cedille recoding featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill are considerably newer than those by Baines but are mostly specifically designed, in their own way, to evoke particular scenes – indeed, listeners who do not know the intended portrayals will not be able fully to appreciate the works. Only one piece on this disc, Shotgun Houses by Valerie Coleman, has been recorded before. It is designed as a tribute to boxer Muhammad Ali and is supposed to interpret his presence in three specific geographical locations. Familiarity with the subject matter and Ali’s personal history is necessary for understanding the work, because while it is played with admirable skill and clarity by McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, nothing in it is actually reflective of the specific places in its movement titles. The other three works on the disc are all world première recordings, and all are intended to have sociopolitical meanings that transcend the music – although they will do so only for people who take the time to study the works’ background before listening to them. Richard Danielpour’s Four Angels is a single-movement reflection on a common contemporary topic, the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 60 years ago, that claimed four young girls’ lives. It is sensitive and as heartfelt as would be expected, given its subject matter. James Lee III’s Quintet contains four movements that are intended to depict specific elements of Native American life and history. The movements are well-contrasted: the first angular, the second playful with elements of lyricism, the third emotional and affecting, the fourth bouncy and celebratory. As a clarinet quintet without topical insistence attached to it, the piece works quite well; whether it works better because it is intended to be tied to Native American issues is a matter of opinion. Indeed, that value-of-a-specific-tie-in question is one for this entire disc, which bears the overall title “American Stories.” High Sierra Sonata, a three-movement work by Ben Shirley, is intended to reflect experiences the composer had in the Eastern Sierras, and certainly portions of it, especially the second movement, sound as if they somehow respond to personal matters. But this work does not need the gloss of specificity to have its effect: like Lee’s (although to a lesser extent), Shirley’s hangs together well simply as music, without requiring an audience to research its reasons for being or the rationale for its movement titles. The Danielpour and Coleman works do demand that of listeners, and that actually diminishes those pieces, since they are too insistent on their “meaningfulness” instead of relying on an audience to experience (and perhaps judge) them on how well they communicate the composers’ thoughts and emotions to people the creators of the music do not know and will never meet. It is easier to see Lee’s and Shirley’s pieces getting additional hearings and recordings simply as music than it is to see Danielpour’s and Coleman’s works being regarded as anything but self-limiting “cause” music, no matter how well-played.

     Two of the five works on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the Lomazov-Rackers Piano Duo are world première recordings, while the other three are by much-better-known contemporary composers – an effective way to package previously unheard material with works with which listeners who enjoy modern piano pieces may already be familiar. The premières are the two-movement Two Colors (2001/1996) by Fang Man (born 1977) and single-movement Ad Lucem (2007) by John Fitz Rogers (born 1963). Man’s colors are “Pure White” (delicate and flowing, almost like water) and “Big Red” (angular, staccato, dissonant, pointed). This is contemporary Impressionism on display, and well-made even if not very clearly connected to the specific colors indicated. Ad Lucem is a more-extended work (twice the length of Man’s two movements put together) that focuses on creating a dialogue between the pianos. In truth, although both these pieces are well-crafted, neither impresses as much as those by the more-established composers. Hallelujah Junction (1996) by John Adams (born 1947), the longest piece on the CD (nearly 17 minutes), will be somewhat too repetitive for those not enamored of Adams’ typical style, but it certainly showcases that style effectively for those who find it enjoyable. Kaleidoscope (1959) by John Corigliano (born 1938) packs a great deal of piano interplay and rhythmic verve into its comparatively compact six-minute time frame, and bears rehearing just to pick up some of the skillful and interesting ways in which Corigliano tosses material between the performers. Also worth hearing repeatedly – and in fact at greater length than offered here – is The Garden of Eden (2006) by William Bolcom (born 1938). A meticulous craftsman with a special fondness for religious/spiritual themes, Bolcom is heard here in excerpts called “The Eternal Feminine” and “The Serpent’s Kiss.” There is an apparent ease of both composition and performance in these strongly jazz-influenced selections, the first pleasantly lilting and the second suitably dramatic to the point of sounding like an accompaniment to the “villain” segment of a silent movie. Bolcom has a carefully honed sense of piano style and of the dramatic, and he brings both to bear very effectively here – and Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, who play all the works on the CD with aplomb, sound as if they are thoroughly enjoying offering these specific pieces to an audience. It is a bit puzzling, however, that they present only two of the four works from The Garden of Eden, since the entire disc is short – just 50 minutes – and there was plenty of room for the other two. In any case, the Adams, Corigliano and Bolcom works surround those by Man and Rogers, and if the sandwiching puts the Man and Rogers pieces at something of a disadvantage because of the inevitable comparison with the other works, it also provides an interesting way to hear the world première recordings in the context of modern two-piano music that has become better-established with listeners.

No comments:

Post a Comment