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Classical Corner Featured — 11 March 2012

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Best of Winter 2012

(This is our quarterly roundup of great new recordings, starting with “major works,” orchestral music, and early music. Expect another installment around the end of the month, focusing on chamber music, new music, and opera.)

Major Works

Here’s a big deal indeed: the longest symphony ever written, calling for the greatest number of performers in any such work, has gotten its best recording ever. It’s not Berlioz, not Mahler. It’s by British composer Havergal Brian (1876–1972) and commonly (commonly?) known as Symphony No. 1, “The Gothic.” For this we can thank conductor Martyn Brabbins, who organized it, the BBC Proms, where it was performed last July, and Hyperion Records, who have issued a two-disc document of that performance (CDA67971/2).

Who was Havergal Brian, and why should you care? The child of pottery workers, he left school at the age of eleven, was essentially self-taught as a composer, and gained inspiration from brass bands and choral festivals in the Midlands, also from hearing Elgar and Strauss at Hallé Orchestra concerts. Brian suffered a series of personal crises around the time of World War I, and through the 1920s he worked at odd jobs while composing “The Gothic” in whatever spare time he could find. It was not until after World War II that he gained a bit of recognition; after he turned 70 he composed four operas and twenty-seven symphonies! His style is basically late-Romantic but with ironic juxtapositions, caveats, and tics that may remind us—philosophically if not sonically—of his American contemporary Charles Ives. In short, he was one of a kind.

It would be easy to dismiss Brian as something only the Brits understand, like having a taste for Marmite or Manchester United. But then you might miss out. As revealed by this recording, “The Gothic” is a great piece of music. Of course you have to make the effort to hear it. And a whole lot of people have to get together to perform it: it comes in six movements and requires four vocal soloists, two double choruses of about 500 voices plus a children’s choir, four brass bands, and an extremely large orchestra. It’s also rather difficult, especially the choral parts. The first three movements reference Faust, archetypal seeker and striver; the last three comprise a one-hour setting of the Te Deum. Brian’s use of a Latin text evokes the Gothic Era but goes beyond it, symbolically depicting the human struggle to build, to rejoice, to prevail against overwhelming odds. (Sounds like he was drawing on personal experience.) Here is a bit of that Te Deum setting:

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Yes, I know the chorus sounds just slightly muddy. That’s what you get with 600 singers in the Royal Albert Hall. There is nevertheless something endearingly old-fashioned about the “Gothic” Symphony, in spite of its length and occasional quirks. If you prefer a more modern, in-your-face experience, perhaps you should have a go at a new Requiem by Thierry Lancino (b. 1952), now out in demonstration-quality sound in various formats (Naxos Blu-Ray Audio NBD0020; CD 8.572771). Lancino, who is not well known in this country, certainly has chops: I was continually impressed by the skill with which he employs combinations from the full spectrum of the modern orchestral palette. He can make huge, bashing sounds, ghostly whispers, and everything in between. He writes well for voices too. Furthermore, this variation on an ancient ritual text comes as a natural expansion of that text’s history. Berlioz and Verdi turned the Requiem Mass from liturgical exercise into thrilling universal theatre—they brought the apocalypse into the concert hall. With his landmark War Requiem (1961–62), Benjamin Britten broadened and contemporized the message by incorporating anti-war poetry from fallen soldier Wilfred Owen.

Now come Lancino and librettist Pascal Quignard, who have discovered hints of a pagan presence in the words of the “Dies irae,” which speaks of “David and the Sibyl.” In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Cumaean Sibyl was granted a wish for eternal life but was punished by Apollo when she refused his love; noting that—technically—she hadn’t wished for eternal youth, Apollo let her body gradually shrink away until only her voice remained. That is the voice we hear throughout Lancino’s work, begging for death. The very mortal David, speaking for Christian belief, only wants to be granted eternal life. There you have it: 70-plus minutes of Life vs. Death, meditations on Time and Eternity, Suffering and Justice, etc. etc., for large orchestra, chorus, and soloists, in Latin, Greek, and French. My Dinner with Thierry.

Here is a clip from the “Dies Irae,” in which Lancino’s skill—and his debt to Verdi—should be obvious:

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Viscerally exciting, and extremely well-crafted. The “Sanctus” demonstrates Lancino’s masterful use of textures and sonorities, à la Penderecki:

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In many large-scale Requiem settings, that “Sanctus” text offers a point of repose. In this one, not so much. As Quignard admits, their Requiem “leaves face-to-face the two desires, the two pains,” offering no resolution. Depending on your tastes and needs, that may present a problem. When I was younger, full of Sartre and Camus but unconscious of my own mortality, I could relish the sort of dilemma-presentation on display in the Lancino Requiem. Now? Not so much. Last night I attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion here in Atlanta (Robert Spano, ASO, a starry “cast”). It was not a perfect evening, but at its center was Bach’s vision of a world in which fallible humans contemplate mortality and become better because of that. Maybe I shouldn’t hazard any comparisons here. We need to give Mr. Lancino another two hundred years first.

The performance seems just about ideal. Conductor Eliahu Inbal’s soloists, especially mezzo Nora Gubisch (the Sibyl), sing passionately and well; orchestra and chorus deliver the goods also. And the multichannel mix is quite good, really helping unclot the big sounds in this big piece.

More Symphonic Music

Everyone else on the planet has already praised Music for a Time of War, from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony (PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 393), to the skies, so I had better get in line. It is first-rate music-making, and first-rate engineering to boot. When I got this record, I thought, Oregon Symphony? Doing a concept album? Of music (Britten, Ives, Adams, Vaughan Williams) available in superb performances elsewhere? Didn’t Prof. Johnson just turn out a Britten Sinfonia da Requiem to die for? Unlike AQ in TAS, it did not occur to me that Kalmar and the Oregonians might be making a pacifist statement (although that would not be such a bad idea). But I had other reservations.

Then I started listening. Bit by bit, here and there, occasionally. Eventually I understood. This is really alive. There’s a range of feeling, a vitality and coherence in these performances, recorded before the orchestra’s big trip to the Big City last spring, that cannot be denied. Even if you own recordings of every one of these pieces already, you will find this orchestra’s journey through them uniquely rewarding, every step of the way. The sound, from John Newton and his colleagues at Soundmirror, is reach-out-and-touch-it real. Trust me, the timpani wallops et al in the Britten will make you jump. Repeatedly. But the big story is the orchestra, playing its heart out with absolute precision and a confidence that places them securely in the major leagues.

No pair of excerpts could fully represent the broad vision of this program. But here is just a bit of baritone Sanford Sylvan, declaiming Whitman’s immortal Civil War poetry in John Adams’ The Wound Dresser. In it, the poet, who served in Union hospitals during the war, goes from soldier to soldier, numbing himself out of necessity to the suffering that surrounds him. For a moment his guard drops: “One turns to me . . . poor boy! I never knew you, / Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Emotion overcomes him; he fights to regain his composure and go on.

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And here is an episode from the finale of Vaughan Williams’ atypically truculent Symphony No. 4. As the composer said later, “I don’t know whether I like it, but this is what I meant.”

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Two other CDs, both of 20th-century French music, took me by pleasant surprise. Albert Roussel (1869–1937) worked hard, achieved some recognition, yet is not among the half-dozen people that come to mind when the subject is early-modern French composers. He remained “somewhat apart,” as he said, “in order to have the freedom of personal vision.” Roussel went through an impressionist phase, followed that with some experimental works after World War I, and then settled into a distinctive brand of neoclassicism. He had champions: Koussevitsky, for instance, who commissioned the Third Symphony for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. (That may explain why Bernstein later took it up—keep your eye peeled for a discontinued Masterworks Heritage set with Lenny’s Roussel Third).

And now conductor Stéphane Denève has come on board. With the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, he has just released the final volume in a survey of Roussel’s orchestral music for Naxos (8.572243). This one includes an early ballet, Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) and two suites from a slightly later work, the opera-ballet Padmâvatî. The first is impressionistic, full of rather straightforward imagery, while the second incorporates aspects of Indian music that Roussel encountered in his travels. The “Dance of the Spider,” in which the eponymous hero(ine) of the insect ballet contemplates her prey before consuming it, gives you an idea of Roussel’s blend of evocative power and classic French restraint:

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Hearing this prompted me to acquire Denève’s recording of the Symphony No. 3 (Naxos 8.570245), which delivers a lot more in the way of structured, intense expression. It is coupled with Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane. Maybe I’ll also pick up the Roussel 4th (Naxos 8.572135). You just can’t have too much Roussel around.

More mainstream is the other “French” disc, Pastorale d’été, Une Cantate de Noël, and Symphony No. 4 by Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic (LPO 0058). Of course Honegger wasn’t actually French. But you wouldn’t know that from the atmosphere he conjures up in the Pastorale, which seems redolent of the French countryside.

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Or maybe that would be rural Switzerland, the “subject” of Honegger’s lovely Symphony No. 4, subtitled “The Delights of Basel.” He wrote it for Paul Sacher and the Basel Chamber Orchestra, and he weaves a couple of old tunes associated with that city right into the orchestral fabric. Honegger’s Christmas Cantata, a fruit of the composer’s last years, was also written for Basel. Jurowski and the LPO offer just the right combination of lyric warmth and lightness of spirit in all three works.

Another disc I’ve enjoyed enormously in the last six weeks has been Bernard Haitink’s recent reading, with the London Symphony Orchestra, of the Richard Strauss favorite Ein Alpensinfonie (LSO Live SACD LSO 0689). This piece has become a staple chez Schenbeck, although it’s kind of a guilty pleasure. There’s nothing too deep about this work—a tone poem that outgrew the confines of its genre—but the rich orchestral colors, and Strauss’s palpable awe in the face of nature’s power, make for an engrossing experience. Haitink does better by the score than any of his latest hi-rez rivals, e.g., Jansons or Janowski, and he is much better recorded than Christian Thielemann, his only serious competition as a conductor among those who have recently recorded this music. Here is a bit of “Entering the Forest,” just one of many spectacular moments in this great score:

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Early Music

Life is not a race, nor should music be. When it comes to new recordings, it’s hard to pick winners; sometimes the best ones need time to grow on you (see Music for a Time of War, above). But if I were to single out one Early Music Winner this quarter, it would undoubtedly be the Retrospect Ensemble’s dynamic SACD of the J. S. Bach Easter and Ascension Oratorios (Linn CKD 373). It is simply the most musical realization of these two works I have ever encountered. A signal component of their success is indeed dynamics. Whereas many early-instrument groups (and that includes vocal “instruments”) seem to avoid microdynamic phrasing, not to mention the stirring buildups of sonic energy (i.e., crescendi) implicit in much music—even that created before 1750—Retrospect goes for it. Listen to the Sinfonia of the Easter Oratorio:

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Hear the way they lean into ongoing phrases? How each note feeds the next? Just as importantly, they know when to fall back, breathe, regroup. Here’s an excerpt from the opening chorus of the Ascension Oratorio:

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It also doesn’t hurt that conductor Matthew Halls has brought together four vocal soloists at the very top of their game: soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. As usual, sensitive engineering from Linn. Altogether splendid.

Two new recordings came this way recently from Fretwork, the extraordinary viol consort. Both releases are eminently recommendable, and one features repertoire that you will not likely have heard before—at least played by viols. It’s a transcription of the complete “Goldberg” Variations, BWV988, by J. S. Bach (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907560). Now, it’s true that Bach harbored a fondness for the gamba. He wrote for the instrument throughout his career, and it is hard to imagine a proper original-instrument performance of, say, the St. Matthew Passion, without one; he used two in his Cantatas 106 and 198, and in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. But by Bach’s time, the viol consort—an ensemble of gambas in all sizes and ranges—was already a thing of the past. He could never have imagined that the Goldbergs would be retrofitted for such a group.

Yet they have been, and by Fretwork’s own Richard Boothby. The results were intriguing. If all you know of the Goldberg Variations comes by way of Glenn Gould’s classic piano recordings, or via harpsichord performances (contextually closer to Bach’s world), you are in for some surprises. This is not to say that everything Bach wrote works equally well for viols. Some details, in fact, did not even survive Boothby’s translation. And there is something doleful about gambas, even when they’re attempting to sound sprightly. That’s just the way it goes. Still, you may find yourself listening more intently, following Bach’s varied poses and arguments with renewed insight, simply because the colors are so different (and of course bowed strings can sustain a tone, whereas neither piano nor harpsichord are very good at that). Listen to Variation 16, in which Bach dons the guise of a French nobleman for a moment:

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That’s an ouverture, and it sounds no less grand for being tossed off by these players rather than being suggested by one person at a keyboard. Or try this, the difficult Variation 20, which loses less of its nimble character than you might think:

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And then there are the canons (every third movement is a canon, each at a different interval). They come off very well, perhaps because their character is often more serious to begin with. Here is Variation 21, a “Canone alla Settima”:

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As for the poignant Aria? Beautifully handled, and scored differently at the end than at the beginning. Well worth your attention. Will sound great on your tube gear!

More up Fretwork’s alley is the second release, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807554). Here they join with Stile Antico, the phenomenal vocal chamber group that seems to go from strength to strength. In this latest offering they explore music created for household worship in 16th-century England. That lands both groups in familiar stylistic territory, and not surprisingly they pull off their “collaboration” very well. I only wish there were a bit more of it. Of the fifteen tracks on Tune thy Musicke, just three actually present singers and players together, and one of those is a solo vocal number. Fretwork also contribute three “In nomines,” an essentially secular genre central to the repertoire for viol consorts, but not intimately related to domestic religious practice per se. Here the “In nomines” serve as interludes between chunks of unaccompanied (and un-conducted) Renaissance choral singing, for which Stile Antico are justly celebrated.

As ever, they sound terrific. Since a number of the most elaborate church anthems found their way into 16th- and 17th-century publications aimed at the private-worship market, Stile Antico are able to vary the menu from simple, declamatory four-part settings all the way up to Thomas Tomkins’ O Praise the Lord, which Matthew O’Donovan—who sings bass in the group and also contributed excellent program notes—describes as “a sumptuous feast of twelve-part polyphony.” Quite right. Just listen:

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Whether you are a Fretwork fan or a Stile Antico follower, you will find much to enjoy here. Although I don’t think this can rightly be called a collaboration, and its inclusion of elaborate church music, not to mention “In nomines,” somewhat weakens it as a concept album, those are ultimately minor complaints when faced with music-making of this high quality. Produced and engineered, in multichannel hi-rez, by the estimable team of Robina Young and Brad Michel, who also go from strength to strength.

Another strong contender this quarter was Ashley Solomon’s well-considered collection of chamber concertos and “motets,” Vivaldi: Sacred Works for Soprano and Concertos (Channel Classics SA 32311). Every time we think we know Vivaldi, up pops something different that demands a re-assessment of this Baroque master. Although he is often considered an instrumental composer, much of his work was meant for the church, and of that, most of it was written for solo voices. So here we are given two fresh-sounding works for soprano and orchestra, one a psalm and one a motet, rendered by the members of Florilegium and fresh-voiced Elin Manahan Thomas, who mostly avoids mannerisms, giving us Vivaldi much as his teenagers at the Ospedale might have. Solomon’s flute also finds a place in one vocal number, the Laudate Pueri RV 601. Listen to this surprisingly tender setting of the “Gloria Patri” that rounds off the piece:

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The vocal works are framed and complemented by the Concerto Madrigalesco RV 129, not a madrigal, but rather a gently expanded sonata da chiesa (church sonata), its brief but solemn Adagios followed by two fugal movements that would have been quite appropriate in any 18th-century celebration of Mass in Italy. Here is a bit of one:

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Throughout the album, Florilegium’s flair for this music asserts itself. I can’t help sharing one more snippet with you, this gorgeously realized Andante from the Concerto in B flat RV 547, which is actually a double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra:

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That’s it for now. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another regular Classical Corner feature. Happy listening!

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Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

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