February 22, 2024

(++++) OLD VOICES AND NEW

Nicola Porpora: Il trionfo della divina Giustizia ne' tormente e morte di Gesù Cristo; Leonardo Vinci: Oratorio Maria dolorata—Sinfonia; Oratorio a 4 voci; Pasquale Anfossi: Salve Regina; Pergolesi: Violin Concerto in B-flat; Vivaldi: Stabat Mater, RV 621. Andreas Scholl, countertenor; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Alessandro Tampieri. Naïve. $16.99.

James Weeks: Primo Libro; Zosha Di Castri: We live the opposite daring; Hannah Kendall: this is but an oration of loss; Shawn Jaeger: love is; Jeffrey Gavett: Waves; Erin Gee: Mouthpiece 36. Ekmeles (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Parsons, countertenor; Tomás Cruz, tenor; Jeffrey Gavett, baritone; Steven Hrycelak, bass). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Barbara Harbach: Choral Music I—Sacred Music; Advent and Christmas; Lent and Easter; Spirituals; Secular Music. Apollo Voices of London conducted by Genevieve Ellis; Timothy End, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     A thoroughly winning mixture of well-known and nearly unknown works for countertenor, the new Naïve CD featuring Andreas Scholl clearly shows, and showcases, the attraction of the highest male voice – which is roughly equivalent in vocal range to that of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano. Only one composer featured on the disc, Vivaldi, is heard in a vocal work that audiences favoring Baroque music will know: the Stabat Mater, RV 621, in F minor, which Scholl sings with unerring pitch and considerable emotional heft. The sensitivity of presentation of the thoughts of the sorrowing Mary Magdalene comes through clearly throughout the performance, with Accademia Bizantina under Alessandro Tampieri unerringly supporting Scholl to just the right emotional as well as musical degree. Quis non posset contristari (“Who could not be saddened?”) is especially moving here, while the instrumental opening of Eia Mater, fons amoris (“Here is the Mother, the source of love”) is exceptional for its mood-setting. The work as a whole is thoroughly moving even in our much-more-secular age. Interestingly, the other well-known composer here, Pergolesi, is represented not by a vocal work but by a violin concerto (with fine solo playing by Tampieri). This is placed on the CD immediately before the Vivaldi, which concludes the disc, and the contrast between the brightness and enthusiasm of Pergolesi and the dark seriousness of Vivaldi is pronounced and highly effective. The earlier part of the CD offers well-played, well-sung material from three less-known composers. The overture and two arias from Il trionfo della divina Giustizia ne' tormente e morte di Gesù Cristo by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) are just as strongly emotive as the music of Vivaldi, and Scholl’s presentation of Per pietà, turba feroce (“For pity’s sake, ferocious crowd”) is positively operatic in its effect. The two works by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) are also exceptionally well-made, the Sinfonia well-balanced and carefully structured and the Oratorio a 4 voci especially noteworthy for the contrast between its extensive instrumental passages and its finely developed vocal ones. And Salve Regina by Pasquale Anfossi (1727-1797) shows how much expressiveness can be packed into six short movements: there is an ethereality about the vocal settings here that Scholl brings out highly effectively, and the instrumental accompaniment not only supports the voice but also presents scene-setting and emotional context for the words. This is a first-rate disc both for the quality of the music offered and for the very high vocal and instrumental standards brought to bear in all the performances.

     The countertenor voice has gone through something of a revival since the late 20th century, with modern composers increasingly willing to explore it in new works – even as specialists in Baroque music have used it more frequently for historically informed performances. The vocal ensemble Ekmeles includes a countertenor among its six members, and the mixture and contrast between the high male voice and that of the group’s mezzo-soprano is one element of the performers’ carefully honed sound. A (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring Ekmeles is of considerable interest for the quality of the a cappella performances, but the six contemporary works on the disc are more of a mixed bag and will be attractive only to a limited audience. The longest piece, the 18-minute Primo Libro by James Weeks, uses an old form – that of the madrigal – in modern guise, including 16 short pieces composed using 31-division equal temperament. As challenging to hear as it is to perform, the work is effectively scored – for one, two, three or four voices – but seems more of a sonic experiment than a piece designed to connect emotionally with an audience. Zosha Di Castri looks to the past from a modern perspective as well: We live the opposite daring harks back to Sappho for inspiration. Its four movements treat the singers both as vocalists and as percussion instruments – they steadily slap their thighs in parts of the work and make meaningless repetitive sounds elsewhere. The actual words sung are largely inaudible, treated as component parts of a sonic world rather than a method of communicating meaning. The other pieces on the CD make no attempt to reach into the distant past. Hannah Kendall’s this is but an oration of loss (one of those works titled without capital letters) is based on a work by Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip and uses massed harmonicas to introduce a series of fragmentary verbal passages, many spoken or whispered rather than sung. Shawn Jaeger’s love is (again, a title without capital letters) uses similar vocal delivery, here in service of a feminist text. Jeffrey Gavett’s Waves treats voices strictly as instruments – its three movements are all wordless – in what is clearly an intellectual exercise that explores singers’ ability to create an aural environment without expressing anything specific. Similarly, Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 36, which is in four parts, focuses on vocal sound production, the performers voicing (or subvocalizing, as the case may be) whistles and clicks, breath sounds and vocal vibrations, individual letters and diphthongs, and other elements of which the human voice is capable when not being used to express any particular kind of meaning. The experimental nature of all the works on this disc will be of interest to those with a strong attraction to avant-garde music, while the skill of Ekmeles in rendering the pieces will be impressive to listeners interested in vocal skill – even if the material as presented neither connects with a wide audience nor attempts to do so.

     One modern composer who does want to reach out widely is Barbara Harbach (born 1946), whose works continue to appear in a very extended series of releases from MSR Classics. The 17th volume in the series is the first featuring Harbach’s choral works – and all of those on the CD are world premiѐre recordings. There are 21 tracks in all, grouped somewhat arbitrarily under five headings, and all are given forthright and carefully considered performances by Apollo Voices of London under Genevieve Ellis – with solid piano support from Timothy End. Clarity of presentation, a hallmark of Harbach’s instrumental music, is clearly present in her choral works as well: there is nothing confusing, unclear or experimental in her use of voices, with the words of all these pieces being paramount. This does not mean that Harbach’s harmonies are old-fashioned: the dissonances that open Praise Him with the Trumpet, one of the four works brought together as Sacred Music, are one example among many of her knowledgeable handling of sound – while the very next work in the same group, Sing, Alleluia, shows just how sweetly Harbach can handle harmony when she so chooses. There are three works listed under Advent and Christmas, with This Night in Bethlehem – with its soaring soprano line – being especially affecting. Among the five Lent and Easter works, Of Christ’s Dark Cup is noteworthy for its moody piano, while Mary’s Joyful Shout has something of the revival about it. The four Spirituals offered here are the most straightforward settings on the CD, all being pleasant although none is particularly distinctive. The disc concludes with Secular Music, five pieces that provide a welcome contrast to the rest of the material here. Intoxicated by the Wine of Love has a pleasant lilt, while Sunset St. Louis has some of the character of the sacred pieces in its choral declamations. There is no overriding theme to this (+++) CD, and no particular sense of organization beyond the rather haphazard assignment of pieces to one designation or another. There is differentiation enough among the settings to make the disc a pleasant listening experience for listeners already familiar with Harbach’s music, although nothing here will likely lead an audience unfamiliar with her works to search eagerly for more of her vocal productions.

(+++) GENTLY, GENTLY

Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata; Lied der Mignon III; Nachtstück, D. 672; Piano Trio No. 2—Andante con moto. Anja Linder, harp; Julie Sévilla-Fraysse, cello; Laurent Korcia, violin. Naïve. $16.99.

Tessa Brinckman: Taniwha; A Cracticus Fancie; Todd Barton and Tessa Brinckman: Sonus Redux—And the Wave Rolled Back; Andile Khumalo and Tessa Brinckman: Wade Through Water; Cara Stacey and Tessa Brinckman: You Never Come Out the Same; Norio Fukushi: Dawn Brightens the Day of Mortals Robed in Purple; Andile Khumalo: Zeuze; Shirish Korde: Tenderness of Cranes. Tessa Brinckman, flutes and prepared piano; Caroline Delume, guitar; Kathleen Supové, piano and prepared piano; Todd Barton, Buchla; Horomona Horo, taonga pūoro. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Some musical instruments naturally lend themselves to sounds of delicacy, even evanescence, and the harp is certainly one of them. That makes harp arrangements of works originally written for other instruments inherently interesting, since even the most accurate transcription changes the overall impression of a piece originally created to be played on something other than the harp. This all gets even more intriguing when it comes to harpist Anja Linder’s adaptation of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, since that work is almost always heard in some sort of adaptation – given that the arpeggione (a six-stringed bowed instrument the size of a cello, fretted and tuned like a guitar) was only popular for about a decade in the early 19th century and is very rarely used for this sonata nowadays (which is actually a shame, but that’s another story). Few modern ears know what this Schubert sonata was supposed to sound like, so Linder’s harp version is as worthy in its way as are the more-usual ones for stringed instruments (generally viola or cello). In fact, Linder’s design is fascinating: she performs on the harp and is partnered (that is, not just “accompanied”) by Julie Sévilla-Fraysse on cello. There is an almost otherworldly beauty to the sonata in this guise: its expansive first movement is filled with wavelets of sound, its brief second one is quietly expressive, and its finale is almost achingly lovely. This Naïve recording is focused mostly on Linder (as both performer and arranger), but in the Arpeggione Sonata, the inescapable intertwining of voices produces a sound that mounts quickly to the heights of beauty and remains there throughout. The other works on the CD function more as “framing tales” or encores. Linder and violinist Laurent Korcia are suitably emotive in Lied der Mignon III (So lasst mich scheinen) and the quiet, almost hesitant Nachtstück, D. 672, whose emotionalism is actually somewhat overdone here. The very short CD – only 42 minutes – concludes with the second movement from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, in which the harp’s plucking is a bit too much at variance with the original for the arrangement to be wholly successful. Given the brief duration of the disc and the reality that only one work on it is wholly successful as arranged for performance here, the CD will be of only limited appeal – but that appeal will be very strong indeed to listeners who are already fascinated by the Arpeggione Sonata in all its manifestations, and would like to hear it in yet another guise (and a very worthy one at that).

     Just as Linder is the primary focus on her CD, so Tessa Brinckman is the main reason-for-being of hers for New Focus Recordings. But although listeners may expect the natural delicacy of the flute to be in the forefront here, that is not the case. Indeed, this is a disc that will be of far greater interest to those who know or have a strong wish to discover Brinckman’s compositions and performances than to anyone else. In addition to playing multiple flutes (including alto, bass, contrabass, and piccolo) and prepared piano, Brinckman is either composer or co-creator of most of the music on the disc. Taniwha (2023), despite using piccolo and several different flutes, is a mostly percussive work that makes considerable use of Māori musical instruments. A Cracticus Fancie (2017) is for solo piccolo (live and processed) and combines poetry with, again, percussive elements, all within a rather complex narrative whose bounds are not clear from the music itself but need to be studied by listeners who want to get the full intended effect of the material. Those two works are by Brinckman herself; she is also co-creator of three others on the disc. Sonus Redux (2020, with Todd Barton) is sonically interesting in its mixing of Baroque flutes with prepared piano and Buchla synthesizer. Wade Through Water (2023, with Andile Khumalo) effectively contrasts the alto flute with piano exclamations and, at a length of just three minutes, makes its points without belaboring them. You Never Come Out the Same (2023, with Cara Stacey) is much more about percussion (played by both Brinckman and Kathleen Supové) than it is focused on Brinckman’s piccolo, which mostly produces punctuation points. Also on the CD are three works for which Brinckman is performer but not composer/creator. Norio Fukushi’s Dawn Brightens the Day of Mortals Robed in Purple (1992) is the longest piece on the disc (more than 12 minutes). Written for flute and guitar, it includes some sections in which the instruments build on each other’s differing sounds and means of sound production, and others in which they are strongly contrasted. Khumalo’s Zeuze (2014) is the shortest piece offered here (less than two-and-a-half minutes) and one of the few allowing the flute expressiveness in accord with its more-typical sound – giving the piano the contrasting percussive material. And Shirish Korde’s Tenderness of Cranes (1990) is not only the oldest work presented on the disc but also one of the most challenging: an 11-minute work for solo flute that gives Brinckman plenty of opportunities to showcase the many techniques with which the instrument can be played and the many sounds it can produce. Unfortunately, the piece is not particularly compelling in its own right – it is something of an esoteric offering that Brinckman’s fellow flautists will find more interesting than will people who play other instruments or none at all. Still, if this CD reaches out only to a limited audience by virtue of the music itself and the performances, it is more than satisfactory in displaying both the compositions and the interpretations for those with a strong interest in contemporary flute music – and even more so for those fascinated by Brinckman’s personal thoughtfulness and creativity.

February 15, 2024

(+++) ONCE UPON SOME TIMES

The Birds of Dog: An Historical Novel Based on Mostly True Events. By Ann B. Parson. Luminaire Press. $20.

     A work of historical fiction with extensive reference footnotes is, if not unique, certainly highly unusual. Ann B. Parson structures The Birds of Dog that way to establish the bona fides on which she bases the novel, in an attempt to show that its fictional meet-and-greet elements and its anachronistic modern sensibilities do fit, more or less, into the time period in which it is set.

     It is a curious and intermittently fascinating book that tries a bit too hard to establish itself as in some sense significant, beginning with its hard-to-fathom title, which turns out to refer to birds on the small South Pacific locale of Dog Island. The book is in large part cast as an epistolary novel, a wonderful form (Dracula, The Screwtape Letters, Up the Down Staircase, Carrie, The Color Purple and so many others) now suffering a long slow death in an age where instantaneous communication is so pervasive that the underlying premise of time, distance and the exigencies of delivery being interrelated and germane to a plot borders on the absurd. Structurally, Parson builds her book around the founding in 1830 of the Boston Society of Natural History, interweaving that event with the real-world voyage to the South Seas of naturalist Charles Pickering and Pickering’s ongoing communication with his voluble, modern-sounding and fictional cousin, Catharine – who, in a mild version of the sort of romance that so often appears in historical fiction, becomes involved with James Ambrose Cutting, in real life the inventor of an early form of photography and the co-founder of the first public aquarium in Boston. Cutting eventually died in an insane asylum, and Parson has Catharine note that in passing, but her main interest is in Cutting’s involvement with scientific display of wildlife – in contrast to the approach of P.T. Barnum, another historical character who appears in The Birds of Dog and who, in fact, eventually purchased the Boston Aquarial Gardens and thus may have precipitated Cutting’s mental collapse.

     Clearly there was much ado about something, or a series of somethings, when it came to scientific research on and display of the natural world in the United States of the 19th century. Thus, there was clearly a wealth of information on which Parson, whose focus before this book was on writing nonfiction, could draw. And indeed her research into the novel’s background shines through in ways that the story itself does not. Her inclusion in the book of people including John James Audubon, Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, and Junius Brutus Booth (father of tragedian Edwin Booth and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth) goes beyond name-dropping (although there is certainly some of that) into the exploration of things that the characters – well-known and little-known, real and fictional – find or could have found important.

     There are, however, some difficulties with The Birds of Dog, partly in presentation and more significantly in a major thematic element. The presentation material involves Parson’s propensity for placing comparatively modern thinking and speaking in the brains and mouths of historical figures – a common failing of historical novels, to be sure, but a disappointing one in such a well-researched work. For example, during a discussion of Europeans arriving in the New World and observing moose, Parson has one character make an observation and then back it up with a quote from a Native American: “[T]heir weapons cancelled out any chance of loving the animals they shared the forest with. As Chief Metacom observed, You can’t keep love and a gun in the same pouch.” Historically, Metacom was sachem of the Wampanoag in the 17th century, but he never said the words that Parson has attributed to him (she does footnote that fact) and he was scarcely an objective or benign figure where Europeans were concerned: he started an anti-settler war and was killed by a Native American on the other side of the conflict, and his head was mounted on a pike at the entrance to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

     History of that sort is not Parson’s concern in The Birds of Dog, however. More to the point, a major narrative theme in the book is one that at best twists history into a more-modern, more-appealing-to-certain-audiences guise. That is Parson’s hatred of guns – a viewpoint that she suggests ran far deeper in the time period of her novel than was really the case. Certainly there were some pacifists opposed to gun use in 19th-century America, but equally certainly this was not the majority opinion. And certainly there were some people who deeply regretted the killing of birds (and other wildlife) for purposes of scientific study – but, again, this attitude was by no means as pervasive and wide-ranging as Parson wishes it had been. To the extent that The Birds of Dog comes across as just another anti-gun screed, albeit one set in the past rather than the present, it becomes just another preaching-to-the-converted presentation – in which the characters happen to wear bustles and sport handlebar mustaches instead of possessing a more-modern appearance. Thankfully, Parson’s novel is not entirely devoted to guns and gun control, but the portions that do have that focus are weaker and more argumentative than the parts that explore character relationships (both real and imagined) and scientific discovery. Although cast as a kind of “advocacy novel,” The Birds of Dog turns out to be most interesting when it is least cause-focused and least novelistic – and most concerned with the fascinating development of scientific research, presentation and display in the earlier days of the United States.

(++++) THE SERIOUS SIDE

Miklós Rózsa: Overture to a Symphony Concert; Hungarian Serenade; Tripartita. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Gregor Bühl. Capriccio. $16.99.

     The continuing perception that writing film music is somehow lesser than writing music for the concert hall is gradually eroding, thanks in large part to contemporary composers such as John Williams. But it was very much a factor in the careers of numerous high-quality, classically trained composers in the 20th century: once they became established in the movie world, they were no longer deemed as “serious,” in some sense, as contemporaries who remained focused on standard classical-music venues. To be sure, this was not the case for 100% of film composers: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and others continued to be deemed “classical” in traditional mode despite making contributions, some of them substantial, to the film world. But for many composers, it was necessary to maintain their reputation for serious music-making by keeping their work for movies as separate from their concert-hall production as possible.

     Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) felt this dichotomy of expectation and reputation more intensely than most, to such an extent that he created the pseudonym Nic Tomay for his film music and, when he eventually wrote his autobiography, titled it Double Life. Sure enough, Rózsa is nowadays thought of almost entirely as a film composer, and his more-traditional classical works – which attracted considerable interest from other composers and were conducted by Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Hans Swarowsky, Karl Böhm and other podium notables – are largely neglected. There is therefore something salutary in hearing, on a new Capriccio CD, three Rózsa works unconnected to the film world, all very well performed by Gregor Bühl and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, and all certainly able to stand unapologetically on their own.

     Overture to a Symphony Concert (1956/1963) is a celebratory concert overture that opens with a bright fanfare and is pervaded throughout by heroism and grandeur. Although unconnected with films, it has an altogether positive sound that could go with triumphal scenes in any number of movies (Rózsa became famous as the composer of Ben Hur, Spellbound and The Thief of Baghdad). There are some "chase" elements midway through the overture, but by and large it is stately and elegant. Its contrasting slower sections constitute a slowdown or pause in the activity rather than an entirely different episode. At each slower or quieter point the music seems eager to resume in stronger and more emphatic guise, making for a very effective and thoroughly upbeat work.

     The version of Hungarian Serenade heard here is Rózsa’s Op. 25 of 1952 (misidentified on the recording as 1956/1963). The work was originally Op. 10 of 1932 and was initially designed to start with a Marcia and bring the same music back at the end in a fadeout. But at the suggestion of no less than Ernő Dohnányi and Richard Strauss, Rózsa revised and expanded the work and had it conclude with a strongly accented Danza. In this form, the suite is quite successful. It uses single wind instruments particularly effectively, starting with a bouncy bassoon solo in the opening Marcia, a movement that is suitably martial and upbeat. The second movement, a Serenata for strings only, is the longest section of the suite, opening with the flavor of a lullaby, then meandering gently as it progresses. It is a quiet movement with a certain wistful quality. More crepuscular than dark, it projects a gentle flowing motion throughout, like wavelets on a lake. Flute, oboe and bassoon are featured in the Scherzo, which is light and jaunty from the start, with nice rhythmic bounce and well-placed percussion emphases. A contrasting slower section recalls some of the mood and flow of the Serenata and is more spun-out than might be expected – after which the initial bounce sneaks back in to conclude the movement. Then a solo clarinet opens the Notturno, a gently dreamy piece without strongly stated themes: it sounds as if it is all ornamentation. It is not especially nocturnal, but does convey a pleasantly drifting quality. The concluding Danza skitters along enthusiastically with emphatic rhythms and good balance between ensemble and solo instruments. It is the most overtly Hungarian of the suite’s movements, featuring distinctively Magyar rhythms, and leads to a rousing conclusion.

     The latest and most-substantive work on this CD is Tripartita, which dates to 1972. As the title indicates, it is a set of three movements but is not symphonic in structure (think of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale). The opening Intrada starts with a march, but this is more of a concert work than one for the parade ground, written in 5/4 time and definitely not foursquare. It clearly announces the seriousness of the overall work from the beginning. Emphatic chords contrast with more-lyrical flowing passages, with dissonances lending an air of piquancy to the proceedings. The writing for brass vs. strings is especially well-contrasted. Next comes an Intermezzo arioso, which emerges from the lower depths – above which wind themes float – to become a moderately paced movement that seems vaguely evocative of specific scenes, perhaps a wide and largely barren landscape within which flickers of activity emerge periodically. A solo violin adds a touch of yearning and warmth before a broader passage for full orchestra provides a contrast like that of the plains with the mountains. An air of mystery and uncertainty pervades the last part of this movement, accentuated in the higher violin register before fading out. And then the Finale opens with proclamatory strength bordering on bombast, strongly colored by percussion. This starts as a display piece with insistent rhythms, but there comes a strongly contrasted section, one-third of the way through, in which the pace slows, individual instruments become thoughtful, and delicacy (including harp touches) is allowed to flow. This atmospheric transformation does not continue, though, and the interlude soon gives way to further drama and speed as the percussion focus returns amid a proclamatory full-orchestral rush to a suitably intense conclusion.

     It would be overstating Rózsa’s compositional stature to deem any of these works a forgotten or mislaid masterpiece, but it would be understating the value of his legacy to continue to deem him solely a composer of film scores. In truth, his film music has long been justifiably admired for enhancing, not just complementing, the movies for which it was created. This disc clearly shows that there is a great deal to admire as well in the other portion of Rózsa’s creative “double life.”