Go to Home Page

Go to Index for All Music Reviews

 

Music Reviews
 

No. 40 - Classical Music - June, 2003

Jason Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Review #36.


 
Divider

Rainbow Body

 

Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

 

Telarc CD-80596

 

 

0

5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

The title of this enticing showcase of 20th/21st century American music refers to the opening work, 36-year old American composer Christopher Theofanidis’ glowing Rainbow Body; it also serves, according to conductor Robert Spano, “as a rich metaphor for the varied tapestry of American music.”

Regardless of multiple entendres, this disc deserves your attention. Each of its four offerings is a winning orchestral showpiece, tonally accessible and bursting with color. What especially pushes the disc to the top of the pile is Telarc’s state-of-the-art DSD recording process, mighty impressive in standard two-channel format, and potentially mind-blowing in just-available high-resolution, surround sound SACD. The Atlanta Symphony’s strings become a bit strident in forte passages, but that seems far more due to the acoustic and playing than to recording techniques.

Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967) wrote Rainbow Body under the influence of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen’s chant, “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite” (Hail Mary, source of life). As with much of Hildegard’s music, Tehofanidis’ composition has an elevated, spiritual feel to it, with luminescent waves of rainbow colors spiraling outwards as though generated in a cathedral setting. I’m far more swayed by the opening and closing of the piece than the dramatic middle, which seems out of place; nonetheless, there’s much here to enjoy.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote his 20-minute Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 in 1936, revising it in 1942. It’s filled with dramatic outbursts that, while sounding “modern,” safely remain within the confines of the late Romantic tonal idiom. Though conductor Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) do the better job of highlighting the symphony’s brief tender interludes, Spano more deeply underscores the work’s restless churning. This may in part be due to the engineering; Naxos’ vaunted 20-bit sound pales besides Telarc’s vaunted sonics.

The Suite from Appalachian Spring, among the most famous works by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), derives from his ballet score for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Its initial version, which debuted at the Library of Congress in 1944, employed just 13 instruments. Re-scored as a suite for full orchestra, it rightly won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for music. Appalachian Spring’s beautiful variations on the Shaker Melody “Simple Gifts” (‘Tis the gift to be simple; ‘Tis the gift to be free…) are as unforgettable as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on “Greensleeves.”

It remains one of music’s great mysteries that someone of “outlaw” cultural status who began his career writing atonal and dissonant works went on to write music so quintessentially American that his Fanfare for the Common Man was appropriated as campaign music by the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, two of the work’s finest interpreters, Leonard Bernstein (Sony and DG) and Michael Tilson Thomas (RCA/BMG), were friends of Copland who share his minority status. No conductor has captured the magic of the work’s opening vista like Bernstein, but Spano’s sonics and the beautiful playing of the Atlanta Symphony make this version highly competitive.

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) wrote the program’s closing work, Blue Cathedral, while imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Composed for the 75th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music (where Barber taught for a time) the work “commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life.” Higdon’s syntax may not be great, but her music is quite beautiful. The work starts slowly, builds to a tremendous climax, and ends with some marvelous, tinkling effects that seem suspended in space. The piece, which I’ve recently used to test equipment at HE 2003, provides a luminous conclusion to a most enjoyable disc.

Divider

Nicolas Gombert: Magnificats 5-8

 

The Tallis Scholars

 

Gimell CDGIM 038

 

 

0

5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

The great achievement of Renaissance composer Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560) springs directly from his criminal conduct. In 1526, Nicolas Gombert joined the chapel of Charles V as a singer; three years thereafter, he became the master of the choirboys of the Imperial Chapel. According to Gombert’s contemporary, a physician named Girolamo Cardano, Charles V ordered Gombert imprisoned in a galley after the composer had been convicted of molesting a choirboy in his care. The composer secured his release by writing his eight Magnificats. Considered his crowning compositional achievement, Gombert’s last major works not only sprung him from imprisonment but also enabled him to retire to a benefice in Tournai.

This second release in Peter Phillips’ Gramophone Award winning Tallis Scholars’ Gombert project features his final four Magnificats; the first four were released on CDGIM 037 at the start of 2002. Gombert’s writing is so compositionally dense that, the better the sound system, the more one can appreciate his writing. Preferring the bass and tenor voices, he managed to pack five- and six-part harmonies into a relatively limited span of a few octaves. Often this involved incorporating a number of dissonances, which the Tallis Scholars interpret for expressive effect. A boombox may make hash of this, but those blessed with good equipment can hear how skillfully Gombert negotiated his harmonies.

Gombert set even-numbered verses to polyphony and left the odd-numbered ones in chant. Voices increase from four to five or more as the verses proceed. Magnificat 6 is the most substantial polyphonically, while Number 8 is the only one to employ doubled altos in the SATB choir. The Tallis Scholars insert Magnificat antiphons before and after each Magnificat to help establish the modality of the different chant tones.

One could go on and on about technical matters, but the value is ultimately in the listening. Gombert wrote beautiful and intriguing music, quite different from the polyphony of Josquin des Prez, Lassus, Isaac, and other Flemish composers of the period. Because his writing favors lower voices, and thus soars less, it can seem a bit forbidding at first. But those who turn down the lights, kill the cell phone, and give the Tallis Scholars their full attention will be amply rewarded.

Divider

BAY AREA EARLY MUSIC VIRTUOSI ON DISC

 The Bay Area, along with New York City, Boston, and Amherst, hosts the United States’ largest community of early music performers and lovers. Such major Bay Area ensembles as Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Magnificat, and American Bach Soloists are filled with superb instrumentalists and vocalists who perform second duty in other music organizations ranging in size from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra to Musica Pacifica.

Among the most prolific of these instrumentalists is Shira Kammen. A UC Berkeley graduate who plays vielle, harp, and fiddle and also lends her voice to many performances was for many years a member of Ensemble Alcatraz, Project Ars Nova, and Medieval Strings. She has also worked with Sequentia, Hesperion XX (now Hesperion XXI), the Boston Camerata, and the King's Noyse, and is the founder of Class V Music, an ensemble dedicated to performance on river rafting trips. Kammen who has lent her talents to over 40 recordings (see www.shirakammen.com), currently performs with several new music organizations: a medieval ensemble, Fortune's Wheel; a new music group, Ephemeros; an eclectic ethnic band, Panacea; and Trouz Bras, a band devoted to the dance music of Celtic Brittany.

As a member of Fortune’s Wheel, Kammen’s vielle, harp, and voice feature prominently here. 

Pastourelle: The Art of Machaut and the Trouvères

 

Fortune’s Wheel

 

Dorian DOR 93245

 

 

0

5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

Recorded with natural resonance at a favored recording venue for early music groups, Mt. Holyoke College’s Abbey Chapel, Pastourelle offers a sampling of gifts from France’s greatest medieval composers and lyricists. If there is a theme for this disc, it derives from the words of the man Fortune’s Wheel’s members consider the greatest medieval French composer, Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377), who wrote, “Music is that science which makes us laugh, and dance, and sing.”

Of the disc’s 20 tracks, eight are by Machaut, three by Adam de la Halle (c. 1245-c.1288), and one (“Chanson legière”) by Conon de Bethune (c.1160-1219). As is often the case with early music, the rest are by the ubiquitous Anon.

Some of these works are written in dance forms such as the caroles, with texts that evoke the joys of dancing outdoors. Others are pastourelles, which tell the tales of courtship and courtly love between maid and knight. Poetry and lyrics, which often speak of suffering and unrequited love, are quite refined. The music has the customary hollow sound that we often associate with medieval writing – think the harmonies of Gregorian chant transposed to a secular context, with lighter textures and love of flesh replacing love of God – with melodies both sophisticated and varied.

Because Machaut composed monophonic melodies at a time when polyphony (writing for multiple voices singing different melodic lines simultaneously) was becoming the order of the day, he has been called “the last of the trouvères.” The master wrote in the three great formes fixes of trouvère rhyme-schemes: the ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai. The disc contains examples of each; a special standout is De Fortune, a ballade which invokes the goddess Fortune.

Since so much of the instrumental repertoire from this period was passed down by oral tradition, and thus constantly subject to improvisation, the particular sensibilities of Fortune’s Wheel’s musicians are crucial to the success of the performances. Happily, both musicians and the recording itself shine. There is an elegance and tastefulness to the playing that does full justice to the subject matter. Enjoyment is enhanced by the clarity and sense of space that surround voice and instruments. Whether this disc is played in the background or appreciated in a state of deep contemplation, it provides almost 70 minutes of unalloyed pleasure.

Divider 

Vivaldi: La Notte

 

Conceti per strumenti diversi

 

Musica Pacifica, Judith Linsenberg and Elizabeth Blumenstock, directors

 

Dorian 93252

 

 

0

5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

While Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) is a well-worn household name among classical music listeners – ask the man on the street if he enjoys classical music, and he will invariably respond, “Well, I like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons”  -- his reputation derives from an immense body of skillfully crafted, immensely satisfying compositions. Even though the man wrote no less than 220 violin concertos, plus others for flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, etc., not a note on this disc sounds mechanical or less than inspired.

Musica Pacifica, in existence since 1990, draws its members from the world-class Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The two directors are established virtuosi: Blumenstock is among the most sought after baroque violinists in the country, with a tone consistently round and sweet, while Linsenberg plays recorder with extraordinary speed and wealth of nuance. Add in Gonzalo X. Ruiz on oboe, Marilyn Boenau on bassoon, David Morris on cello, Michael Eagan on archlute, and Charles Sherman on harpsichord and you have seven musicians who could conceivably sustain solo careers if personal inclination and 21st century marketplace economics were sufficiently realigned.

The ensemble’s five previous CD releases have each been chosen a “CD of the Month” by German’s early music journal Alte Musik Aktuell. Their 2-CD set of Marais (Virgin Veritas) received 5 stars from Europe’s Goldberg magazine, their Telemann (Dorian) won Chamber Music America and WQXR’s 2003 Record Award, and their Mancini (Dorian) was cited as “Noteworthy” in the 2000 International Antionio Vivaldi Awards for Italian Early Music in Venice. Such European accolades are rarely granted to American ensembles.

This disc will undoubtedly enhance Musica Pacifica’s reputation. Each instrumentalist shines in exposed passages, exhibiting a rhythmic vitality and variety of shading that deepens appreciation for Vivaldi’s extraordinary melodic freshness. Because the composer seems to have considered the baroque flute and alto recorder interchangeable, the ensemble offers several flute concertos performed on recorder. Similarly, following Vivaldi’s lead, the violin part on Concerto in G Minor, La Notte, RV 104 is played by oboe, as is one of the recorder solos in the first movement of the Concerto in D Major. The results highlight the colors of authentic instruments, which are far more distinctive than their modern counterparts. Marvelous playing, highly recommended.

Divider

Teatro Imaginario

 

Scarlatti Sonatas

 

Patrice Matthews, harpsichord

 

Vgo Recordings, Inc. VG1007

 

 

0

5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

This auspicious debut recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1757) amazing harpsichord concertos certainly causes one to sit up and take notice. The composer, son of opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, began his career as an organ prodigy. After his dazzling playing learned him the position of maestro di cappella at the Vatican, he left Rome for Portugal, where at age 34 he entered the service of the King of Portugal. Scarlatti subsequently moved to Madrid to serve as music master to the King’s daughter, Maria Barbara, who married the Spanish crown prince. Seemingly satisfied to remain out of the public’s eye, he was free to compose over 500 sonatas, only 73 of which were published at the time of his death.

Bay Area harpsichordist Patricia Matthews Matthews began her studies at New York’s Mannes College of Music, subsequently receiving her masters at the San Francisco Conservatory while studying harpsichord with John Gibbons and Philharmonia Baroque founder Laurette Goldberg. Matthews views Scarlatti’s sonatas as strikingly innovative and modern, with sudden harmonic shifts and imbalances that create an extraordinary tension. Her harpsichord, built by John Phillips after 18th century Florentine originals, is either a huge instrument on the order of Wanda Landowska’s giants or recorded so closely as to add a somewhat monstrous, aggressive aspect to Scarlatti’s writing. The results, simultaneously striking and upsetting, are quite in line with Matthews’ view of Scarlatti’s creations.

Many modern pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz and Murray Perahia, have recorded Scarlatti concertos to great effect. Perahia brings a near miraculous wealth of shading and nuance to one of the works on Matthews disc, the Allegro in C# minor, K247, playing with astonishing speed and a range of dynamics unavailable to the harpsichord. Hearing Matthews and Perahia back-to-back, it’s hard to believe one is listening to the same work. The comparison transforms Scarlatti into a baroque juggler of sorts, recklessly changing masks as he tosses his balls in the air. My personal “historically uninformed” preference is that his balls land on Perahia’s strings, but this is not to minimize Matthews’ achievement.

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
Return to Table of Contents for this
Issue.

Go to Home Page

 

About Secrets

Register

Terms and Conditions of Use