Author Archive

Music of Eric Sessler, Anne Wilson, J. S. Bach, Joseph Jongen, Dan Locklair, Calvin Hampton

Alan Morrison, organist
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
Mischa Santora, conductor

aca Digital

The main reason for excitement on the release of this new album is that it is the recording debut of Eric Sessler’s scintillating new (2006) Organ concerto. That it was commissioned by the Curtis Institute for Alan Morrison, the superlative artist who premiered it in 2007, is a definite plus. Morrison worked closely with the composer through the time of its premiere at the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and is credited by Sessler as being “a major factor in the creation of this piece.” The work itself is a stunning conception, being both a display piece for the organ and a solid concert work for the orchestra, which remains an equal partner with the soloist throughout the 18-minute piece, so that it is an organ concerto in every sense of the word. In the outer movements, inspired writing for the orchestra, particularly the strings and percussion (read: ‘drums’) is matched blow-for-blow by glittering arpeggios, pungent parallel melodies, and dazzling pedal work from the organ. These outer movements, named “Electric Daydreams” and “Momentum” (and how!) enfold a slow movement in the form of a fantasia entitled “A Child’s Night Journey,” in which the organ clearly occupies center stage with the muted strings and soft percussion filling in the slowly moving harmonies and subtly underscoring the mood of nocturnal mystery. As in childhood itself, not of all these slumbers are untroubled, but happily there are no nightmares.

Anne Wison’s Toccata (2003) is up next. This bracing piece does everything you want a Toccata to do, with its rugged themes moving in side steps and parallel motions, bringing out all the virtuosity in the performer.

J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor after Vivaldi, BWV 593 is the first of two works from the classic repertoire that make for an exceptionally balanced program. I’d never really paid this work for solo organ much attention until I listened to this superior performance in which Alan Morrison puts all the right emphasis in all the right places. At 11:41, it seems incredibly short, so swiftly and naturally do all the elements come together. Far from simply translating Vivaldi’s original concerto grosso, Bach lightened the texture in some places, thickened it in others, embellished the melodies and divided them between organ registers in the process of absorbing the basso continuo into the organ. It all seems so perfectly idiomatic (and Morrison plays it so masterfully) that we might have thought the organ version was the original.

Joseph Jongen’s Prière (Prayer) of 1911 seldom raises its voice above piano/pianissimo except for a few moments of quiet ecstasy, such as we encounter in the experience of prayer itself. Jongen, and Morrison, keep our rapt interest for 11 minutes without relying on any false theatrics, no small achievement. No wonder this piece is a perennial favorite among the fraternity of organists.

“The Peace May Be Exchanged” from Dan Locklair’s Rubrics (1989) takes its name from a sentence in the Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child. The soft diapison color reflects the mood of quiet happiness at this point in the service. As we often have occasion to marvel, a gigantic instrument such as the modern concert organ, whose full sonic output can be measured (literally) in horsepower, is often most eloquent when speaking in a soft voice.

Finally, Five Dances for Organ by the too-briefly lived Calvin Hampton (d.1984) is an impish tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s Five Easy Pieces for Piano Duet. Like its inspiration, Hampton’s music can be more complex that is apparent on the surface. “The Primitives,” which opens the suite, is indeed Stravinskyan in is savage changes of meter and its insistent rhythm based on alternating pairs of eighth notes. “At the Ballet,” the weakest part of the suite, is notable for a dreamy long pedal melody, and not much else. “Those Americans” sounds like a quotation and may be an in-joke referring to the manic frenzy with which so many of our contemporary organist-composers pursue ever farther-reaching modes of expression. “An Exalted Ritual” may also be mildly satirical in its intent, as a dignified, slow moving processioal melody is undercut by up-and-down octaves moving underneath it and a quirky little tune bubbling above it all. Unpredicatble melodies and rhythms in overlapping, shifting patterns add to the mounting excitement of the finale, “Everybody Dance.”

The Cooper Memorial Organ used in this recital is remarkable for its variegated range of timbres and dynamics. It was built by Dodson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa and was installed in stages before the Verizon Hall opened in 2001 and in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Its specifcations are listed in the very informative booklet, adding to the listening pleasure of organ aficionados.

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Music of Viktor Kalabis

Zuzana Růžičková, piano & harpsichord
Josef Suk, violin; The Suk Trio
Vlach String Quartet
Prague Chamber Soloists
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by
Jiří Bělohlávek, Zdeněk Košler, Václav Neumann, and Karel Šejna

MSR Classics

Czech composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) was an unknown name to me when this 3-CD jewel box arrived in the mail. As I began scanning the Internet for basic research in writing this review, I was astonished to find that only two Kalabis works were listed on Arkivmusic.com, both buried in recordings of works by other composers. My wonder increased as I actually began listening to the composer’s music. Here was a distinctive, major voice of the 20th century, one who by rights should have a place in modern music near to Bartók or Kodály, two older contemporaries whom he admired, or Stravinsky, of whom he wrote a thesis. (I will leave it to others more qualified than I, and to time, which reveals all things, to determine the exact niche.) Why had I never encountered this striking figure before, in concert or on record?

The answer lies in the fact that Kalabis spent his most creative years in a time when his country was under a Communist regime. That he fell in love with and married a Jewish woman (the great keyboard artist Zuzana Růžičková) probably did not endear him to the authrorities. That they both steadfastly refused to join the Party met with petty retribution. For Růžičková, the first harpsichordist to record all the works for her instrument by J.S. Bach, it meant confiscation of all her fees from foreign concerts. For Kalabis, it meant denial of every visa application to travel abroad and promote his own music in the concert hall. It was a conspiracy of utter silence, in its effect more damning than anything that even Shostakovich experienced under the Soviet regime in Russia.

But there were some unexpected plusses. If Viktor Kalabis was denied a visa to travel, so were other artists. Thus he benefitted from the opportunity to develop professional and personal relationships with a number of great musicians in Prague in the four decades before the Party was overthrown in 1987. The work of many of these artists, as well as the contributions of outstanding sound engineers, is heard in the present program. Further, he had the advantage of being married to a world-class musician who might be expected to critique and perform his music. (Has anyone , other than Robert Schumann, ever been in that situation?) And just as he devoted his energies to the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation and Institute at a time when that composer’s work was a cause to fight for, so he himself has had the benefit of a similar foundation that continues to promote his work after his death (for information on its activities, visit www.kalabismusic.org ). The story of how the present MSR release became a reality is no doubt involved, but I note that the secretary of the international Viktor Kalabis and Zuzana Růžičková Foundation, the distinguished American flutist and educator John Solum, is credited here as executive producer. Providing further aid in the transatlantic effort were MSR’s Robert LaPorta for product management, unnamed engineers at Supraphon, Prague who provided superb digital transfers, and Richard Price of Candlewood Digital, who did the final digital mastering. It was a quality job all around, right down to the cover art and package design by Tim Schwartz of Orion Productions.

Having said all that, let’s get around to discussing the music. Viktor Kalabis’ style is distinctive. His music is economical, honest and direct. Right from the opening of any of the works in this program you get a clear impression of its purpose and specific weight. He is clearly a modernist with little of the romantic heritage in the forefront of his music, and yet his music has a distinctly Czech flavor that separates it from the modern mainstream in which it flows. The modernist features in his music compel, rather than repel, the listener, in particular his compelling rhythms, to which he frequently interjects boldly contrasted elements, his occasional use of bitonality and tone clusters, as he does in the Sonata for Trombone and Piano (1970), and most of all his wonderful color palette, especially at the dark end of the spectrum. His music is pure, with no implied program – the exception being The Two Worlds: Ballet Music, which he wrote for a staging of Alice in Wonderland by the Children’s Music department of Czech Television. Though his music is serious, it is never depressive.

Due to Kalabis’ concise style, we have the advantage of hearing eleven major works in this 3-disc package. Beginning with his Piano Concerto no. 1 (1956), which he wrote as a wdding present for his wife (Růžičková performs it here in a delightful performance with the Czech PO under Karel Šejna). Intended partly as a tribute to Mozart in his bicentennial year, it is a modern work that is very Mozartean in its formal design, its clarity, and its gentle humor. Listening to it, I kept recalling Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in the seriousness of its opening movement and the wonderful way the piano leavens that severity with the warmth and intimacy of its solo in the slow movement, an Andante marked molto quieto e semplice. Two symphonies are included. Symphony No. 4 in two movements (1972) is highly dramatic, with sensational use of the percussion as an integral element. No. 5 (1976) is subtitled “Fragment,” not because it is incomplete (it is in fact a unified work in a single movement), but in honor of Michelangelo’s famous unfinished sculptures, which it emulates in its highly condensed content and emotion. Chamber Music for Strings (1963), written for the Prague Chamber Soloists, shows a striving for all the rich tonality and expression of which a string orchestra is capable.

The chamber works bear further evidence to Kalabis’ concise expression and dramatic power. String Quartet No. 2 (of seven), which Kalabis wrote in 1962-63 in the shadow of his father’s impending death, reveals these qualities. So do the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord (1967), here performed by the artists for whom it was written, Suk and Růžičková, and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (1974), likewise performed by the Suk Trio, to whom it is dedicated. In both we have distinguished ensemble playing and a central slow movement in which the final word is left to Suk’s violin, magically trailing off its final phrase into ultimate silence. In its mastery of harmony and counterpoint in a modern context, Kalabis’ six 2-voice Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord (1962, played here by Zuzana) pays handsome, scintillating homage to both Bach and Scarlatti. And even the Divertimento for Wind Quintet, perhaps the lightest work on the program, reflects Kalabis’ concerns for concision and pithy expression as it pays its respects to a golden past era from the perspective of a more problematical modern one in which it is still possible to find meaning and even elusive happiness.

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Leoš Janáček

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner

Naxos

Peter Breiner, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, has done us a service in arranging and recording a series of suites from the operas of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), with the object of making some of the composer’s most vibrant music accessible to a wider public outside the opera house. To judge from what I hear in these suites from Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Breiner has succeeded admirably as both arranger and conductor. (Even as we speak, a second volume of Janáček suites, consisting of Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, has been released by Naxos.)

Janáček has been called “the first minimalist composer,” but the analogy is misleading. Much of the effectiveness of his writing is due to his assimilation of the natural pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. From this study, he derived what he called “speech tunes.”  These he applied as as short, repeated motifs to build his unique dramatic style. The repetition of these motifs has a powerful cumulative effect. It is, however, quite different from the way repetition is often used by our present-day Minimalists, which to my mind can be quite boring compared with the result Janáček achieved.

In terms of his orchestrations, on the other hand, you’d have to consider Janáček a “Maximalist,” if there is such a word (if not, coin it at once!) His scores are continuously busy, involving every family of the orchestra. Symphonic players must really love Janáček. No matter what your instrument, he doesn’t keep you sawing away in the background on some boring accompaniment for long; sooner or later, you will have your moment in the sun. In particular, his distinctive writing for the brass is highly imaginative and is often used for expressive purposes. In Jenufa, a dark, troubled tale of passion and jealousy in which, among other things, the heroine’s love child is drowned in a mill race by her envious stepmother, the sounds of the brass are often blurred as in a miasma, psychologically reflecting the internal turmoil of the characters. The mill itself is characterized by the ceaseless tapping of the xylophone, to be replaced later by the smoother, undulating sound of the harp, when the sinister crisis has been resolved and Jenufa has at last found happiness.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is an opera in a different mood, based on a fictional Czech hero who rivals Baron Münchhausen as a shameless liar. As befits a drunken hero who lives in a wine vat and is at one point sentenced to die in a beer barrel, the music associated with Broucek is highly colored. In the opening movement of the suite, our hero’s name, Mataj Broucek, is blared out for us by the horns and trumpets. When one of his imaginary “excursions” takes him to the moon, we hear mystic strings and harp glissandi. In the last excursion, when Broucek finds himself in 15 th century Prague, the savior of his country against the onslaughts of the Austrian Emperor, the scoring becomes more robust as Janáček invokes the same Hussite chorale that Smetana had previously used in Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and for much the same nationalistic purpose.

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Rose Garden Songs, Choral Songs, Motets and Hymn Melodies

Tamás Vetö, Ars Nova Copenhagen

Dacapo

Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a man clearly out of step with his time. Reportedly, audiences shunned him in his native Denmark, where he had to promote the premieres of most of his 16 symphonies himself for lack of interest. The trouble was in his sometimes-hysterical arch romanticism that flowed against the stream of the progressive trend in 20th century Danish music represented by Carl Neilsen, with whom he had actually studied counterpoint for about a month. He later had a falling out with Neilsen, whom he came to regard as the epitome of all that was wrong in modern music, and he was quite outspoken on the matter. A contemporary wag described Langgaard as “the white duckling who grew up to be an ugly swan,” and the unfortunate label stuck.

Posterity has been kinder to Rued Langgaard, particularly since the recording explosion that was ushered in first by the stereo LP and then the compact disc. “Neglected” romantics became a passion in the industry, and Langgaard was the beneficiary. Also, his fellow countrymen, who often used to laugh at his premieres, have had a change of heart towards his music, and most of his 400+ works have subsequently been published and performed.

The current program of choral songs by Langgaard reveals the less eccentric, more purely lyrical side of this enigmatic figure. The texts are simple-hearted and straightforward in their emotion, particularly in the Psalm and hymn arrangements of contemporary Danish poets. Langgaard set these to music distinguished by harmonic warmth and gentle expressiveness that has been largely absent from a capella music since Brahms. The three choral songs with secular texts reflect a genuine, refreshing love of nature, as in the following: “A bird flew over the fir-clad moon; / it sings forgotten songs. / It enticed me away from the beaten track; / and onto shadowy paths. / I came to hidden springs and ponds / where the elk slakes its thirst; / but the birdsong sounded still far away / like a hum midst the sighs of the wind; / Tirilil Tove, Tirilil Tove, / far away in the forest!” (Alluring Sounds, J.S. Welhaven)

The 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen under Tamás Vetö is a premiere vocal ensemble, distinguished for its perfect blend, flawless intonation and expressiveness. This recording was originally released by Marco Polo in 1997, when Dacapo’s catalog was still being issued on that label. Dacapo thought highly enough of this offering to reissue it in luminous hybrid SACD sonics, making it even more attractive. Listeners who treasure great a capella singing will find this offering irresistible.

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Scherzo: Piano Music

Darrett Zusko, piano

Centrediscs

Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007) is represented here by approximately half his complete work for solo piano. He was a confessed traditionalist, mostly in the matter of received classical forms, which he handled freely and confidently. “Ever since I was a child,” Morawetz stated, “music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line.”

Despite that avowal, I found that the composer’s melodies, much of which I could not recall after listening to the present program by the talented young Canadian pianist Darrett Zusko, were not his most prominent feature. Of course, the piano pieces heard on this CD are mostly in fairly strict classical forms: Scherzo (1947), Ballade (1947, rev. 1984), Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata (1956), Ten Preludes (1964), and Suite for Piano (1968). I have not heard either of Morawetz’ two symphonies, nor any of his numerous concerted works, which include From the Diary of Anne Frank for soprano (or mezzo) voice and orchestra, all of which would obviously present greater opportunities for vivid emotional expression.

From what I hear on this CD, I’d have to say that Morawetz’ strengths include his restless rhythmic and harmonic pursuits, involving syncopations and chromatic chord progressions, and the relentless way he builds his climaxes. If there isn’t much superficial charm in any of these pieces, there isn’t any nonsense either. In his Ten Preludes, the three slow preludes, all Adagios, are quiet and sombre in mood, and are contasted with the notably more energetic faster preludes, all Allegros or Allegrettos of various kinds. His Ballade, despite the quasi-literary connotations of that name, is “pure” music, without any extra-musical associations. Even his Fantasy on a Hebrew Theme (1951), which pays respect to his Jewish heritage, is actually not a true fantasia but a set of variations that takes the Israeli song “Artzah Alinu” as its theme. Its moods range from quietly pensive to march-like and insistent, though curiously not stirring or exultant (This is not music to inspire the Israeli pioneers).

Darrett Zusko’s performances play up the strengths of the music heard on this disc. This is most evident in Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata, which makes the heaviest demands on the pianist’s virtuosity, particularly in the high-energy perpetual motion Toccata. Worth a hearing.

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The Key Masterpieces

Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt;
Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Hannu Koivula;
Athleas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Giordano Bellincampi;
Morten Zeuthen, cello; Trio Ondine; Kontra String Quartet

Dacapo

I must admit total ignorance as far as prior experience of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), and I’m probably far from alone in that respect. His fellow countrymen regard him as the successor to his mentor Carl Neilsen as Denmark’s greatest composer. But while Neilsen has gradually achieved world fame, thanks in large part to the untiring efforts of his admirers among conductors and critics, Holmboe remains little known outside his native land. Of the 33 recordings of his music currently listed on Arkivmusic.com, only one is on a label that is not Danish (Dacapo, Danacord, or Classico). Like that of Nielsen, Holmboe’s music is uncompromisingly honest and direct, solidly structured, very personal and very intense (“Controlled ecstasy” is the way he described it). There is little in it that is superficially colorful or pretty. His use of the strings is notable for its extremes, from the darkest stratum of the lowest strings to the most brilliant high register of the violins, a sound so intensely brilliant it hurts.

In keeping with the aim of Dacapo’s Perspectives series, this 2-CD set is described as comprising the composer’s “Key Masterpieces,” as culled from that label’s discography. Actually, it’s a fairly representative sampling of the range of Holmboe’s writing, considering the fact that it comprised more than 200 opus numbers. None of his 13 symphonies is represented, but we do have Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 20 (1940) and Sinfonia 1, Op. 73a (1957). The former is distinguished by the interweaving lines of violin and flute soloists and by a strikingly original use of the percussion as an integral part of the texture and not just for accents or special effects. The latter is notable for its tight structure and economy of means. The Sonata for Solo Cello (1969), which makes exceptional technical demands of the performer, is also highly expressive, illustrating what Holmboe meant by “controlled ecstasy.” It calls for the excellent performance it receives here from cellist Morten Zeuthen. Nuigen (1976) was Holmboe’s own pet name for his Second Piano Trio. The title could be translated “What, again?” It, too, represents the composer’s attempt to extract the essence of folk music in its outer movements, to which he contrasts an intermezzo “in sacred style.” His Fourth String Quartet and his tone poem “To the Seagulls and the Cormorants,” Op. 174 (both completed 1987) show that his rigorous approach and the rugged expressive power of his music were far from diminished in his later years.

That leaves us with his oratorio Requiem for Nietzsche (1963-64), based on sonnets by the Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig describing Nietzsche’s journey toward both enlightenment and madness. It is an almost indescribable work, making heavy demands on the tenor and bass soloists (particularly the latter, sung here by Johan Reuter) and calling on the chorus for a number of surprising aleatoric effects that include speaking in a hubbub of voices, whispering, and shouting in addition to plain old-fashioned singing. Even if it didn’t include some controversial notions in its libretto – such as that the voice of Jesus’ tempter in the wilderness was the voice of truth, corresponding to Nietzsche’s idea of man as a limitless, self-contained god – this avant-garde work makes such demands on the listener that it is clearly not for everyday listening.

The performances on this program are universally fine. The recordings, made at different times and in different venues, have been mastered in clear, transparent sonics that give the listner the feeling of a coherent program.

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Music for Piano, including Sonata, Op. 91 and “Rustles of Spring”
Jerome Lowenthal, piano

Bridge

Question: What does the music of Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856-1941) have to do with the contemporary music of our time (which, presumably, is what the Sequenza21.com website is all about)? I’d have to say, “Absolutely nothing.” Of course, I pretty much review what our zookeeper sends me, but Sinding seems a really odd fit. In his student days in Leipzig he was under the spell of the new music of the day, which then meant Liszt and not Wagner’s “music of the future.” His forms are conventional, and his harmony while striking, was used mostly for coloristic purposes and was decidedly not revolutionary. Even his Sonata in B Minor, Op 91, his most ambitious work on the present program, while organically conceived like Liszt’s masterpiece in the same key, is nowhere near as daring. As Jerome Lowenthal points out in his program notes, Sinding relies on subtle mood fluctuations to achieve organicism, rather than the contrapuntal devices Liszt employed.

A survey of the ten character pieces that accompany the sonata on this disc reveals Sinding to be a true Romantic composer of the old school, distinguished by his continuous flow of feeling, his turns of phrase that seem to embody the cadences of his Norwegian language, and his lack of emotional complication. His was music of heartfelt simplicity, to be played in the parlor “at the end of a perfect day.” The virtuosic element occurs mainly in the tumultuous flow of his short pieces, often ending, as do “Con fuoco” and “Capricccio” in a very decisive cadence that we might take as part of the composer’s thumbprint. The more intimate pieces such as “Melodie” and “Serenade” embody a mood of gently melancholic yearning rather than pathos or neurotic self-pity. “Irrlicht” is a will-o-the-wisp, descriptive but less ambitious than Liszt’s take on the same shyly lit subject. And his pieces in march time, “Alla marcia,” “Pomposo,” and “March grotesque” (but without the sinister spin that Prokofiev would later give that qualifying adjective) are pleasant but certainly not militaristic.

That brings us to “Rustles of Spring,” which was once so enormously popular that, as Lowenthal wryly observes, pianos of that period were said to have learned the Sinding habit and could play it by themselves, without the benefit of a pianist! Lowenthal makes much of the fulsome flow of feeling and the composer’s evident love of nature in this piece. As we have heard in his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra (Bridge 9301 A/B), which like the present offering originally appeared on the Arabesque label, this pianist likes to “take it big” with the music, and he is here given numerous opportunities to do so. It all makes for a very pleasant way to spend your time, as long as you’re not looking for music of real greatness.

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Northern Lights
Cheremissian Fantasy
Kalevala Suite

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor
Samuli Peltonen, cello

Ondine

Conductor John Storgårds leads an ear-opening account of music by Uuno Klami with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the very orchestra that premiered all the works found on this program. Klami (1900-1961) was, we are told, very much a cosmopolitan in his outlook, and was influenced by the new music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Russians from Rimsky-Korsakov on. You couldn’t tell it from the present CD offering by Ondine. The music here is highly nationalistic, Romantic in mood and orchestration, and inevitably redolent of Jean Sibelius, who maintained his resolute silence during most of Klami’s active career as a composer. Thereby hangs a tale.

The catalyst for the older style to which Klami reverted in the trio of symphonic masterworks heard here was none other than Robert Kajanus, founder and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the figure most responsible for making it a world class orchestra. An ardent patriot at a time when Finland had wrested its long-sought independence from Russia following the downfall of the Romanovs and was ever vigilant to keep that freedom, Kajanus used all his persuasive powers to convince Klami that the inspiration Sibelius had derived from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, was far from spent, and that it was still possible to “score a victory on the old fields of glory.”

That is what we hear on this program, the nationalistic and discretely romantic side of Uuno Klami, rather than the international and modernist. Beginning historically with the Cheremissian Fantasy (1931) for solo cello and orchestra, in which Klami used two alleged folk melodies of the Cheremis, a people distantly related to the Finns who lived in the northern reaches of the Volga. Klami expanded the ranges of the fixed-length pentatonic melodies to give himself more flexibility, and he wrote scintillating music for the solo cello. It is played here by Samuli Peltonen, one of Finland’s finest young musicians, who really shines when the cello breaks out with a mighty burst into the final, most virtuosic section of the piece.

Revontulet (Northern Lights, 1946) is a beautiful example of less=more scoring in an elegantly conceived celebration of the well-known phenomena in the Nordic sky. Some critics at the time of its premiere expressed disappointment that the orchestration wasn’t more colorful, which ignored Klami’s purpose in depicting, in his own words, “an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit.” The oscillation of the orchestral colors in this piece, trailing off into silence at the end, achieves the purpose admirably.

Klami’s masterpiece, The Kalevala (1943) unfolds as a series of tableaux celebrating the origin of the cosmos and the assertion of the human element, as depicted in the Finnish folk epic. The masterfully scored first tableau, Creation of the Earth, moves from the inertia of the cold, primeval void to the glorious moment when the planet comes into being. The Sprout of Spring (couldn’t someone have come up with a better translation for Keväan oras?) is more lushly scored, as befits the subject, while Terhenniemi is a fleet-footed scherzo that captures the mood of folk dancing in a meadow on a summer’s day. Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen is a lullaby for the infant child. Its dignified but austerely melancholy mood clearly tells us (a) that Lemminkäinen is destined to become a great hero and (b) he would be well advised not to invest in the futures market. Finally, in The Forging of the Sampo, Klami brought all the power of the orchestra (and in particular, the sensational hammer-strokes from the percussion section) to bear on themes derived from old Finnish runo tunes as he celebrated the decisive moment when man’s creative energy and resourcefulness made its impact on the world. The Sampo of the title is a cornucopia, and its forging is emblematic of what archaeologists call the “Neolithic revolution,” when advances in agriculture and technology made permanent human communities possible. Thus we end a long journey from initial twilight to bold physical action.

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Mass (1971)

Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop

Naxos

By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.

Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.

What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.

And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.

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In Memoriam
Soloists, Valley Festival Orchestra and Amherst College Concert Choir
Lewis Spratlin conducting

Streaming: Quartet for Piano and Strings
Yvonne Lam. Violin; David Kim, viola; Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Xiang Zou, piano

Navona Records

“Sun, Sun, you bring us light. Never can we pay for the blessings that you give to us.” Thus begins a Mayan prayer to the Sun that calls forth an appropriately rhythmical choral setting by American composer Lewis Spratlan, concluding Part IV of In Memoriam. Earlier, in the course of the Mexican Serenade portion of Spratlan’s ambitious choral work, the composer waxes lyrical in a soprano/tenor duet: “And when I close my eyes at night / I hear the threadbare music / of your streets / and I fall asleep as if adrift / in the air of Sinaloa.” Here, the unmistakable echoes of Mexican popular song add to the enchantment of the nocturnal images in the poetry by Pablo Neruda.

Unfortunately, there are precious few instances of such perfect melding of poetic inspiration and musical setting in the 50-minutes length of In Memoriam, based on translations of Spanish language poetry by Neruda and César Vallejo. Spratlan’s professed aim is to celebrate the resilient spirit of the people of Mexico and Central America in their journey from pre-Columbian times to the present, in spite of an often tragic and bloody history, just as the land itself seems to be endlessly renewed by luxuriant foliage. That’s all well and good, although just how much a Miami, Florida native like Spratlan can be expected to understand an alien culture – to which he is not, unlike Neruda and Vallejo, an inheritor – could be debated. True, the Mayans made impressive achievements in art, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy, but they also practiced very bloody human sacrifice. That’s not so easy for a modern person to relate to! And future generations will require historical footnotes for references to “Trujillo” and “Somoza” in the revolutionary theme of Neruda’s “The Hero.”

The greater problem is that Spratlan basically employs a style of heightened declamation, a sort of tortured sprechstimme in American English, for the great majority of his settings. One hears this all too often in contemporary choral and vocal settings, and the effect is tedious in the extreme when carried over a long work such as In Memoriam. Free, unrhymed verse explodes in a spectacular profusion of imagery such as “The peace, the wasp, the shoe heels, the slopes / the dead, the deciliters, the owl, / the places, the ringworm, the sarcophagi, the glass, the brunettes, / the ignorance, the kettle, / the altar boy, the drops, the oblivion / the potentate, the cousins, the archangels, / the needle, the priests, the ebony, the rebuff, / the part, the type, the stupor, the soul”¦” (Vallejo). These things, to Vallejo, are part of the stored common memories that a poet must not forget, but how do you set them to music?

The sad truism that second-rate poets – the Wilhelm Müllers rather than the Pablo Nerudas – are more likely to inspire great music than the truly great ones would seem to apply here. Also, the live recording of In Memoriam, made in April 1993 in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College, is less than optimal in the clarity with which it registers the large forces employed here, 5 solo vocalists plus a chorus of 110 singers and 70 instrumentalists. There’s too much bleed-through in the moments of heightened intensity. The recording sounds as if it were intended for archival purposes, rather than commercial release.

“Streaming” for Piano and Strings (2004) benefits from a better recording, which is essential since so much of the effectiveness of the music is in its details. Spratlan claims to have aspired to something analogous to a stream of consciousness in literature, in which “ideas and images appear, merge, retreat, reappear changed, [and] jostle for place” (Spratlan), much as in the state in we emerge from sleep but are not yet fully conscious. With repeated auditions, the 16-minute piece appears less aleatoric (i.e., by random chance) than we might have at first imagined. A principle of form begins to emerge from the “buzz of consciousness” (Spratlan) that employs vivid contrasts between a beautiful, languid theme in the strings, like a slowly drifting cloud tinted by the colors of sunset, and bumptious, scrambling frenetic figures that threaten to overwhelm it.

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