January 19, 2023


Music for Lute by Francesco Spinacino, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, and Marchetto Cara. Hopkinson Smith, lute. Naïve. $16.99.

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. The Clarion Choir conducted by Steven Fox. Pentatone. $15.99.

     The lute has a long history of implying archaism in music: think of Beckmesser tuning his lute in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as Wagner’s method both of scene-setting and of implying just how out-of-date the views of the town clerk are. But in the right hands, the lute brings a great deal of beauty and expressiveness to music even if the notes themselves are 500 years old. And Hopkinson Smith’s hands are certainly the right ones. Smith, who also plays guitar and the fascinating vihuela (shaped like a guitar, tuned like a lute), pays tribute to some little-known, very early composers for lute on an enthralling new Naïve CD. The composers are so early and unfamiliar that even the dates of their lives are imprecise: Francesco Spinacino’s birth year is unknown and he died around 1507; Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s birth year is also unknown, and he died in 1508; and while Marchetto Cara’s birth year is given as 1470, his year of death is uncertain – it was circa 1525. At such a temporal distance, the exact years matter far less than the quality of the music, which is uniformly high – even if not yet developed to the heights of a century later by composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Campion. Although Smith includes some of his own reconstructions along with works that have come down to today in playable form, his stylistic sensitivity and knowledge of his instrument render transitions from an original to a reconstructed work seamless. And while his six-course lute, strung appropriately for the time of this music, is modern – dating to 1977 – it is meticulously modeled on the instruments of the 16th century. The result of all the care taken by Hopkinson is that distinctly old-style music played on a distinctively old-fashioned instrument serves both as a time capsule and as a highly engaging contemporary experience. The individual pieces are remarkably varied in mood and effect: some bright, some crepuscular, some intricate, some comparatively straightforward, some dancelike, some less rhythmically regular. The works by Cara are a bit different from the others, being in a genre known as frottola, based on secular Italian songs. However, most listeners will not hear significant stylistic differences among the composers or within each individual composer’s work. But hey will notice that the 21 tracks on the disc, ranging in length from less than two minutes to more than five, are not only attractive miniatures in themselves but also, in Hopkinson’s presentation, part of a larger whole that provides a kind of survey of early-16th-century lute music and explores ways in which works of a very distant time period can still speak to and please audiences half a millennium later.

     Rachmaninoff’s All Night-Vigil (Vespers, Op. 37) is much more recent than the lute works played by Hopkinson, dating “only” to about a century ago: 1915. But this a cappella choral work, literally intended for all-night performance – in a sequence moving slowly toward daybreak, to symbolize the Resurrection of Christ – has roots that go much deeper and much further into the past. And it is because of their acknowledgment of those roots that the Clarion Choir’s performance on the Pentatone label moves beyond the excellent and into the outstanding. Under Artistic Director Steven Fox, who not coincidentally is an expert in Rachmaninoff’s choral music, the choir performs the entire All-Night Vigil and additionally includes several instances of the original chants on which Rachmaninoff based his work. The movements called (in English) “O Gladsome Light,” “Now Lettest Thou,” “Praise the Name of the Lord,” “Troparion: Today Salvation Is Come,” and “Troparion: Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb,” are all preceded by the chants that Rachmaninoff modified and expanded – sometimes to a small degree, sometimes to a more-substantial one – in his work. Rachmaninoff’s troparia (a troparion is a short, usually single-stanza hymn used in Orthodox religious services) are especially interesting when juxtaposed with the chants that form their basis, since there is considerable subtlety and care in the composer’s modifications even though the versions in All-Night Vigil are not significantly longer than the originals. The remarkable purity of the Clarion Choir’s massed sound is highly impressive throughout this CD: so clear is the enunciation, so careful the balance, so well-managed the rhythmic flow, that it often sounds as if a single multifaceted voice is singing, not a group of more than two dozen individuals. The blending of ranges is superb, the care with which the music is shaped is uniformly excellent – and while there are numerous attentive and top-notch performances available of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, this one is truly special in every way. The only possible quibble with the disc is that the original versions of the five chants are sung immediately before Rachmaninoff’s corresponding movements: purists who want to hear the Rachmaninoff straight through will need to skip those originals and juxtapose them with Rachmaninoff’s at some later time, if they so desire. Of course, if the originals had been clustered at the end of the CD as a kind of appendix, it could be argued that there was a missed opportunity to hear the old chants immediately succeeded by Rachmaninoff’s modified ones: there is no arrangement that could possibly please every audience. The Clarion Choir’s estimable handling of this All-Night Vigil, however, really should please anyone interested in Rachmaninoff’s choral masterpiece – whether or not a listener is an Orthodox believer or, in fact, associates specifically with any religious or spiritual tradition at all.

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