Monday, 1 September 2014

Fine performances of works by Heinrich von Herzogenberg from the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha conducted by Matthias Beckert on a new 2 SACD release from CPO

Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was born in Graz, Austria and studied at the Vienna Conservatorium, thereafter dividing his time between Graz and Vienna. In 1872 he moved to Leipzig where, from 1875 to 1885, he was conductor of the Bach-verein. He was subsequently appointed head of the department of theory and composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, becoming professor in 1886.

Herzogenberg was a lifelong friend of Brahms and, with a colleague, Philipp Spitta, founded the Bach Society. His compositions include choral works, vocal works, orchestral works, chamber works, piano music and organ works.

It is his choral works that feature on a new 2 SACD release on CPO from the Monteverdichor Würzburg  and the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha  conducted by Matthias Beckert  with soloists Franziska Bobe (soprano) , Barbara Brackelmann (alto) Maximilian Argmann (tenor)  and Jens Hamann (bass)

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The first disc brings us Herzogenberg’s Totenfeier, Op.80 for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. A cantata using biblical texts and hymn strophes, it was written in 1892 and moves from a condition of despair to an ultimate acceptance. It was written whilst the composer was dealing with his own grief following the death of his wife.

The Introduction and Funeral March with Choir brings a weighty orchestral opening followed by a directness of utterance as the choir sings ‘Man, born of woman, lives only a short time and is very troubled.’ There is often a funereal measured tread, pointed up by timpani, that contrasts with dramatic outbursts An extended orchestral passage, full of drama, leads the music into A Recitative and Aria with bass, Jens Hamann entering in this pleading section, ‘Lord! Why do you stand so far away?’  Hamann weaves the text, delivering finely controlled emotion.

We are immediately led into an Alto solo and Chorale where the lovely voice of boy alto, Jaro Kirchgessner, opens with just organ, before the orchestra and choir enter, slowly and gently lifting the music. The choir and orchestra alternate with alto and organ to terrific effect. Franziska Bobe, arrives, in terrific voice, for the Soprano Solo and Choir, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ soon joined by the choir and orchestra bringing an upbeat joy to the text. When Bobe returns she brings a clear voice, full of light before the chorus and orchestra return who, with soprano and orchestra lead to the end. Bass, Jens Hamann returns heavy with emotion for the Recitative and Aria, ‘When I sought the Lord.’ with the Thuringen Philharnonie Gotha adding fine orchestral drama, passion and weight.

Pizzicato strings quietly open the Solo Quartet section before the quartet of soloists enters with brass, adding light to the texture of this slightly Bachian chorale. The chorus and orchestra gently and smoothly open the Chorus, ‘When the Lord redeems the captives of Zion’ bringing a feeling of comfort to the words. This is a beautifully subdued and mellifluously sung section which, centrally, rises in passion before speeding forward at the words ‘Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter’ before being led back to the opening tempo.  

There is an attractive instrumental opening to the Soprano Aria, ‘How lovely are your dwelling places’ before the soprano enters in this distinctive and lovely setting where the soloist and instruments weave around each other with Herzogenberg’s orchestration so transparent and light. This lovely section, a kind of pastoral section, is beautifully sung.

Bass, Jens Hamann returns for the Bass Solo and Concluding Chorale with an impassioned ‘The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away’ before the choir and orchestra enter to bring a resolute conclusion. The weighty orchestra of the opening returns but this time to affirm ‘The King’s Glory shines’ –with, again, hints of a Bach chorale.

This is a particularly distinctive and attractive work, well worth getting to know. It is beautifully orchestrated, with Herzogenberg bringing drama and poetry to his distinctive style.

Begräbnisgesang, Op.88 for tenor, male voice choir and wind ensemble was written in 1895 following the death of his good friend Philipp Spitta and sets the composer’s own texts. It is a short work, lasting only around five minutes but delivers much passion and feeling.

The wind ensemble open, followed by tenor, Maximilian Argmann then the male voices of the choir in another distinctive work that for all its debt to Bach is distinctively Herzogenberg’s own style such is the beautiful way he layers the tenor over the choir and brass.

The second disc contains Herzogenberg’s Requiem, Op.72 was written in 1890 and first performed, with the composer conducting, in St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig – Bach’s old church.

The orchestral opening of Requiem is more symphonic than ecclesiastical. When the Monteverdichor quietly enter, they reinforce just how good a choir they are. There are gentle surges of dynamics, finely controlled, beautifully blended and with a lovely tone right across their range. There is a feeling of controlled tension, pointed up by occasional timpani.

The Dies Irae, the longest section part, opens in a fairly subdued manner with timpani rhythms and a slow building of dynamics. When the music drops back it leads to a quickening of tempo with a kind of scurrying nature. The choir and orchestra provide much drama and tension but there is none of the violence found in other Requiems. At times the choir really soar over the dynamic orchestra. There are occasional vibrant string passages reminiscent of Mozart in his Requiem. Later the male voices lead to a more dramatic section but it is, nevertheless, more an intense drama than an out and out ‘Day of Wrath.’ This is a pleading Dies Irae not a frightening premonition. The end is hushed.

It is lovely the way Herzogenberg divides female and male voices in Offertorium. There is a beautiful flow in this glorious section and a particularly affecting Hostias, exquisite and distinctive in its writing.

In the Sanctus the orchestra leads the music, rising up, with the choir joining in this joyful section. There are some lovely moments as the music swirls around, full of joy and light, with the orchestra underpinning the choir magnificently.

The Agnus Dei has a quiet, tentative orchestral opening leading to a slow plodding orchestral theme before the male voices of the choir enter just as tentatively. The female voices then enter over the male choir, adding a spiritual feeling. Midway the orchestra raises the dynamics a little but the choir then continue their gentle, rather mystical way.

6The orchestra opens Communio with an upward theme soon joined by the whole choir, flowing beautifully forward with a rich orchestral contribution. There is a particularly lovely section at ‘…for you are merciful’ and a lovely feeling of peace when they sing ‘Grant them eternal rest, O Lord.’

On the evidence of these discs Herzogenberg is a composer worth exploring. I will certainly return to these works again.

The Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha conducted by Matthias Beckert provide fine, taut playing, great dynamics and sensitivity and the Monteverdichor Würzburg prove themselves to be a first rate choir. All of the soloists are excellent as is the recording from Neubaukirche, Würzburg.

There are excellent booklet notes and full Latin, German and English texts.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Anyone that has an interest in British music should not hesitate to acquire this new release from Nimbus featuring Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No.2 and Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods

Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) was born in London and studied violin with Colin Sauer, and composition with Helen Glatz at Dartington College of Arts in Devon. At the Guildhall School of Music in London, he studied violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal and received guidance in compositional from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.

In 1973, Sawyers joined the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, during which time he also freelanced with other orchestras and chamber groups including the London Symphony Orchestra, the English National Opera Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as West End theatre orchestras and in film, pop, and light music sessions.  He was also violin coach for the Kent County Youth Orchestra and a visiting teacher at various educational establishments.

In 1997, he left the ROH, and undertook a year of postgraduate study at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. Alongside composing, Sawyers now works as a freelance violinist, teacher and adjudicator.

Philip Sawyers’ works have been performed and broadcast around the world and include two symphonies, concertos, chamber works, songs and instrumental works.

Nimbus Alliance  have already recorded Sawyers’ two violin sonatas (NI 6240) and his Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass, The Gale of Life and Symphony No.1 (NI 6129)

The latest release of Sawyers’ music from Nimbus features his Symphony No.2 coupled with his Cello concerto and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings with the Orchestra of the Swan  conducted by Kenneth Woods

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Sawyers’ Cello Concerto (2010) was commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival, England and written for cellist Maja Bogdanovic , the soloist on this recording. The opening Allegro commences with the cello and orchestra in a mellifluous, flowing melody that immediately sticks in the mind. The music soon becomes increasingly passionate but, when the music drops away again there are some lovely varied textures for the cello. The music picks up more rapidly and somewhat anxiously before again falling to a quieter section, pointed up by short, rapid phrases for cello. Eventually a more impassioned orchestral passage arrives that sweeps ahead, leading to sharp staccato phrases when the cello joins for the cadenza. When the orchestra rejoins, it manages to quell the agitated cello to lead it into the gentle melody of the opening.

Higher strings open the Adagio, soon joined by horns, then oboe, as the lovely falling melody is revealed. The cello enters taking up the melody, briefly taken by a horn before continuing with a soft and gentle string accompaniment. The cello slowly works up a passionate edge to the music with the various instrumental sections adding individual textural touches. Soon the music suddenly becomes more dramatic with an orchestral passage brass. The cello joins in this dramatic section leading the way before quietening and becoming more reflective, the cello taking the melody against a melancholy orchestral accompaniment. Nevertheless, the cello leads the impassioned music back before dropping to a beautifully hushed coda.

The concerto concludes with a lively Allegro where the cello seems to have a dialogue with the orchestra before the orchestra take over. The cello returns as the music falls quieter but no less agitated. Soon a more flowing melody arrives for cello and orchestra but it is interrupted by little rhythmic motifs. The music rises up to become more lively with the orchestra forcing the pace ahead but the cello returns with moments of introspection. However, overall the mood is vibrant with broad sweeps of orchestral sound before, with the cello, it rushes ahead to the coda.

There is terrific playing from cellist, Maja Bogdanovic as well as the Orchestra of the San under Kenneth Woods.

Symphony No.2 (2008) was an earlier commission from the Sydenham International Music Festival and is in a single movement though falling into four sections. Timpani and brass dominate the opening, full of forward thrust and dynamism. The music soon drops to a hushed section where various woodwind and brass quietly intrude into the orchestral texture before slowly rising up though now less dramatic, despite occasional sudden brass interjections. Gentler passages alternate with more dramatic outbursts with this orchestra providing taut, dynamic playing.

Soon there is a section that is a riot of orchestral colour and instrumental sound with Sawyer adding so many fine orchestral touches such as little brass interjections that pop up and disappear. A quiet mysterious passage of swirling orchestral textures arrives, one of the finest moments in this work. A group of woodwind instruments appear before rich strings take over, pulling the music up as the woodwind combine with the strings. Later, as the woodwind appear again, the music falls back as a solo violin weaves around the orchestra. There are a number of dramatic rises and swirls from the orchestra, full of thrust and energy, set against quieter sections before a final dramatic rise of the orchestra, with timpani, pushing forward to the resolute coda.

This is a very fine symphony that rewards repeated listening such are the little details easily missed at first hearing.

Concertante for Violin, piano and Strings (2006) was commissioned by the Czech violinist, Tomas Tulacek, in order to add to the number of works for this unusual combination of instruments. Here the Orchestra of the Swan is joined by the Steinberg Duo, Louisa Stonehill (violin) and Nicholas Burns (piano) Deep piano chords along with an insistent orchestra motif open this work. The violin soon enters, before being joined by the piano in a lighter theme that contrasts with the more aggressive opening theme when it returns. A gentler section for violin and piano arrives that soon becomes more and more agitated, moving between quieter and agitated louder passages. Eventually the violin introduces a slow thoughtful passage taken up by piano over hushed strings. This wistful melody continues, shared between the violin and piano over a hushed orchestra before slowly rising up with some terrific rising and falling phrases for violin and piano. As the work progresses the music introduces the lighter theme from earlier in the work but soon the music is whipped up again as the two soloists and orchestra drive the music forward. Towards the end the music quietens a little but nothing can stop the music rushing to its coda.

This is a particularly unusual and very attractive work. The two fine soloists, Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns provide spectacularly fine performances ably supported by the strings of the Orchestra of the Swan.

The Orchestra of the Swan under Kenneth Woods do a terrific job with all these works as do the soloists, cellist Maja Bogdanovic and the Steinberg Duo, Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns. Extremely well recorded at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England and there are excellent booklet notes from Kenneth Woods.

Anyone that has an interest in British music should not hesitate to acquire this new release. After my enthusiastic review of Sawyer’s two violin sonatas (see: ) I intend to seek out the previous Nimbus recording of Sawyers’ orchestral works (NI 6129) 

Monday, 25 August 2014

The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut new recording of Music from Lent to Easter deserves to be heard especially given the fine choice of works on this new release from MSR Classics

To many the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut  will be unknown. Perhaps the repertoire, on a new disc from MSR Classics, of Music from Lent to Easter will not necessarily attract much attention.

This would be an enormous shame as this choir is of such a standard that they are a match for many English collegiate choirs. The repertoire on this new disc is very well chosen ranging from plainchant and Pergolesi through to Stanford, Peter Hurford and Philip Moore.

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The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls under their Director of Music, Jamie Hitel , serves as the principal choir for the 9.15am service at Christ Church each Sunday. The choir consists of girls from 3rd grade through high school seniors. The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls visited England for twelve days in July 2010, singing services in Exeter Cathedral and St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Girl and boy choristers combined for a highly successful tour of England in the summer of 2012, where they spent a week singing services at York Minster and Coventry Cathedral. 

Their new CD entitled A Thing most Beautiful is divided into two halves, Lent and Passiontide and Easter.

The music for Lent and Passiontide opens with John Ireland’s Ex ore innocentium opened by soloist Gabriella Hitela who displays a lovely pure voiced sound, catching something of the timbre of a boy treble, especially the upper notes. As the choir enter, they too have an especially fine tone, very Anglican in sound in this lovely performance.

In César Franck’s Panis Angelicus it is lovely the way Jamie Hitel draws subtle little dynamics and textures from the choir – exquisitely done. Plainsong can leave voices terribly exposed but with the Plainsong Lent Prose this choir have a consistently accurate and appealing quality.

By the Waters of Babylon by Colin Mawby (b.1936) is a very fine work, slowly building from a gentle opening and rising, midway, full of passion. There is some particularly fine singing as the music falls to the gentle coda.

Peter Hurford (b.1930) will be known to most people as one of the finest organists of his generation. Here his Litany to the Holy Spirit brings an attractive directness of utterance and a timeless quality to the writing. This fine choir bring some lovely touches.

Soloist, Victoria Hoffmeister opens the Plainsong Pange Lingua responded to by the choir with the Christ Church acoustic adding much to the attraction of this performance, so finely judged.

Next the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls sing the first section of Giovanni Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Organist, Alistair Reid provides some lovely playing as he sets the rhythm and pace before the choir flows forward in a confident, beautifully layered performance with Reid adding further lovely touches.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Song of Hope proves to be a powerful piece, with a full organ contribution and some glorious vocal passages with well controlled dynamics from the choir.

Soloist, Madeline Wolf, opens Malcolm Archer’s (b.1952) My song is love unknown. She has a lovely voice with some fine lower textures. When the choir join they bring out all the varying textures of this fine setting with a lovely conclusion.

The music for Easter begins with the Plainsong Victimae Paschali with lovely contributions from the two soloists, Katherine Meurer and Madeleine Hitel.

Handel is represented here by his  If God be for us, a fine choice from Messiah in which both organist and choir bring a suitably Handelian flavour with some lovely long held notes and phrases and some finely done intricate passages.

Thomas Foster’s (b. 1938) Lift your voice, rejoicing, Mary opens with Victoria Hoffmeister (flute) accompanied by the organ before the choir gently lead on in this rather fine piece where the flute makes a natural and fitting addition to the texture with its pastoral in feel.

There is an exceptionally fine performance of Purcell’s Sound the trumpet with long held notes and some lovely overlaying of voices.

Christ Church’s Visiting Artist, Philip Moore (b.1943)  provides a particularly individual and attractive setting Come, thou fount of every blessing with a beautiful melody, very finely sung by this choir and developing in texture in the final verse. This is a very fine work indeed.

Richard Wyton (flute) adds a fine texture to J. S. Bach’s Ich folge dir gleichfalls bringing a delicacy that combines well with these lovely transparent voices.  Claude Means (1912-1999) was Organist and Choirmaster at Christ Church, Greenwich from 1934 to 1972) His gentle Savior, like a shepherd, lead us receives a perfectly paced and moulded performance. It is a lovely little work.

The music of Philip Moore returns to conclude this disc with his Jubilate Deo. After a brief organ opening this choir bring a joy and lightness in a very fine performance of this brilliantly written piece; so uplifting.

This fine choir deserve to be heard especially in the fine choice of works on this disc. They receive sensitive support from organist Alistair Reid and are finely recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut.

There are notes on the music set alongside composer information and full texts and English translations.

There are biographical notes on Director of Music, Jamie Hitel, organist Alistair Reid and Visiting Artist, Philip Moore. The individual choir members are credited but I would have liked more information about this fine choir.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Another terrific disc from La Serenissima who provide so much energy, precision and vibrancy in a concert of works by Vivaldi, Pisendel, Montanari and Albinoni from Avie

The British early music ensemble La Serenissima was founded in 1994 by violinist Adrian Chandler and takes its name from La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (The Most Serene Republic of Venice) The ensemble specializes in the music of Venetian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi and his contemporaries.

Since the release of their first recording for Avie Records in 2003, La Serenissima has received two Gramophone Award nominations, for Volumes 1 & 2 of The Rise of the Northern Italian Violin Concerto: 1690-1740 and a Gramophone Award for Best Baroque Instrumental CD in 2010 for Vivaldi: The French Connection. The follow up CD, Vivaldi: The French Connection 2 was nominated for a Gramophone award in 2012.

I greeted their dazzling Vivaldi release, A Tale of Two Seasons, in August 2013, with enthusiasm. 

Their debut release for Avie, entitled Per Monsieur Pisendel, featured works by Johann Georg Pisendel, Tomaso Albinoni and a number of the Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel by Vivaldi.

La Serenissima’s latest release from Avie Records goes back to that original disc and is entitled Per Monsieur Pisendel 2 and features more of the Suonata à Solo facto dedicated to Pisendel, a virtuoso violinist as well as composer, together with works by Antonio Montanari, Tomaso Albinoni and Pisendel.  


The instrumentalists on this recording are Adrian Chandler (violin), Gareth Deats (cello), Thomas Dunford (theorbo), Robert Howarth (harpsichord and organ).

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678–1741) Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel in A, RV 29 was one of a number inscribed to his pupil, Johann Georg Pisendel. La Serenissima create some lovely textures in the Andante that is taken at a leisurely pace allowing the music to unfold beautifully with a subtle rhythmic lilt. This ensemble manages a fine clarity of texture in the fast and furious Allegro, with terrific ensemble. The Largo has a typically beautiful Vivaldian melody woven between the instruments to lovely effect. The little Presto is full of energy and joy with a terrific rhythmic bounce.

Johann Georg Pisendel’s (1687-1755) Sonata for Violin and Continuo in C minor opens with a melancholy Adagio prolubite that precedes a hesitating Andante as though forming a prelude to the remaining movements. The Allegro brings some attractive twists and turns as the melody moves forward, full of invention and finely played by La Serenissima with some pithy, incisive playing. There is a beautifully relaxed Largo, sensitively played, that gently sways in its forward motion before the Allegro, a terrific movement, again full of fine invention with this ensemble providing some extremely fine playing, attending to every nuance and detail with superb textures in some of the more intense chords.

This is a particularly fine and attractive sonata.

Pisendel also studied with Antonio Montanari (1676 – 1737) in Rome and it is his Sonata for violin and continuo in D Minor that follows. It has a sweet sounding Adagio where Montanari weaves some particularly fine textures, beautifully revealed by La Serenissima. The robust Allegro has some powerfully produced textures from these players. The second Adagio brings a lovely melody with some fine string decorations beautifully played by Adrian Chandler. Finally there is a Giga senza basso (without basso continuo), with a rhythmic dancing, solo violin melody that is most attractive and finely played by Adrian Chandler.

Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751) needs no introduction except to say that he also dedicated a sonata to Pisendel (included on Volume I of Per Monsieur Pisendel AV0018) His Sonata for violin and continuo in B flat brings a lively flowing Allemande: Larghetto, full of little rhythmic details, with terrific playing from  La Serenissima. The Corrente: Allegro has a lovely spring to its rhythm, drawing the music forward and allowing these players to weave some terrific sounds. The light and breezy Gavotta: Allegro shows La Serenissima providing more fine transparency of textures, every instrument sounding through. The Sarabanda: Allegro has a more gentle dancing rhythm in this short concluding movement.

The other work by Johann Georg Pisendel is his Sonata for Violin in A Minor where, in the opening Grave, Adrian Chandler provides some fine flourishes as he weaves the music in this solo sonata. The Allegro brings more fine invention with Chandler providing some superb playing in the varying rhythms and changing dynamics. There are even more intricate rhythms and textural challenges in the Giga – Variazione, the longest movement of this sonata superbly realised by Chandler.

This is a terrific sonata that finds Chandler on great form.

Finely we return to Antonio Vivaldi and another sonata dedicated to Pisendel, his Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel in F, RV 19. The Andante brings a lovely contrast as the ensemble returns with such mellifluous textures in this gentle movement, pointed up by lovely instrumental details. There is a lively, rhythmic Giga, full of propulsion and fine textures with some terrific, robust playing from La Serenissima. After a lovely, leisurely Largo, these players provide fine detail in the intricate rhythms of the Allegro. When the final Allegro con Variazione arrives it has a leisurely opening before the Allegro proper appears and runs through a series of fine variations with terrific playing, getting faster as it proceeds, to conclude this disc.

This is another terrific disc from La Serenissima who provide so much energy, precision and vibrancy in a concert of works that reveals the attractions of composers that aren’t normally given much exposure.

These fine instrumentalists receive an excellent recording from the Hospital of St Cross, Winchester, England. There are informative booklet notes from Adrian Chandler. Full details of the instruments used are given.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

In tonight’s BBC Prom Daniel Barenboim displayed his superb ear for orchestral colour with the West–Eastern Divan players proving, once again, just what a fine orchestra they are.

Tonight’s BBC Prom (20th August 2014) brought back Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra for a program of Mozart, Adler, Roustom and Ravel. Perhaps more than ever it is good to see these Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians joining together to give us such a fine concert.

After a taut, urgent performance of Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra gave us the first of two commissions by the orchestra, Israeli composer, Ayal Adler’s Resonating Sounds receiving its UK Premiere. There was a shimmering, resonating orchestral opening statement that soon gave way to quieter, more fragmented pockets of sound, interrupted by occasional surges of dynamic sound. There were many lovely details that combined, produced a strange overlay of textures and themes. Occasionally there were moments that didn’t perhaps hold together as well structurally but overall this was a beautifully orchestrated piece that produced some fine ideas.

Syrian composer, Kareem Roustom’s Ramal, also a UK Premiere, is based on pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meters used in classical Arabic poetry and had a forthright opening that soon gave way to a quieter, insistent theme full of forward motion, lightened by Roustom’s fine orchestration. There were moments of deep reflection beautifully orchestrated with some lovely woodwind moments as well as a lovely, haunting passage for strings. Before the coda there were some iridescent orchestral sounds before the music began to build dramatically, before the quiet coda.

This was a fine work from a composer of which we need to hear more. Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra provided a very fine performance of both works.

The second half of the Prom brought four works by Ravel, with a beautifully controlled opening to Rapsodie espagnole out of which flowed some lovely orchestral flourishes. This was not merely just a showpiece of a performance but one that was full of atmosphere and many fine details. The rhythms of Malagueña flowed naturally from the opening section with a beautifully languid, rhythmically subtle Habanera before building naturally in the dance rhythms of Feria with luscious orchestral flourishes and very fine string sonorities.

Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso followed with subtlety again being the watchword, despite the more boisterous moments. There was a languid atmosphere and some especially fine instrumental contributions in this spacious performance.

There was an exquisite performance of Pavane pour une infante défunte where Barenboim kept up the tempo but without the music ever seeming rushed, with so many lovely moments revealed by the orchestra.

The last work was Ravel’s Boléro, a work that is very little more than an exercise in orchestration. However, in the right hands it can take on the appearance of much more than that, particularly when played in the context of the other Ravel works performed tonight. Individual section principals were certainly given the opportunity to display their fine talents. This performance had a directness that allowed the music to speak for itself which, together with the sheer beauty of this orchestra’s playing, lifted the music.

Throughout, Barenboim displayed his superb ear for orchestral colour and the West–Eastern Divan players proved, once again, just what a fine orchestra they are.

However, the Prommers were not going to leave it there. Barenboim returned no less than four times to gives short pieces from Bizet’s Carmen bringing a rousing end to the evening’s music.

A new release of choral works by Robert Kyr from soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig with Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Craig Hella Johnson on Harmonia Mundi

American composer, Robert Kyr graduated from Yale University in 1974, continuing his studies at the Royal College of Music, London and at Dartington Summer School where he studied with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Kyr returned to America to complete his M.A at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with George Rochberg and George Crumb. In 1989, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he studied with Donald Martino and Earl Kim.

Since then Kyr's music has been performed widely around the world and has been commissioned by numerous ensembles, including Chanticleer (San Francisco), Cappella Romana (Portland), Cantus (Minneapolis), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, New England Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, New West Symphony (Los Angeles), Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, Yale Camerata, Oregon Repertory Singers, Cappella Nova (Scotland), Revalia (Estonia), Putni (Latvia), Moscow State Chamber Choir (Russia), Ensemble Project Ars Nova, Back Bay Chorale (Boston), and San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. 

To date Kyr has composed twelve symphonies, three chamber symphonies, three violin concertos, and numerous works for vocal ensemble including many large-scale works - A Time for Life (An Environmental Oratorio, 2007); The Passion according to Four Evangelists (1995); and three choral symphonies—From Creation Unfolding (No. 8, 1998), The Spirit of Time (No. 9, 2000), and Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light (No. 10, 2005).

Kyr has held teaching positions in composition and theory at Yale University, UCLA, Hartt School of Music, and Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, Aspen Music School, and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently Kyr is a professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, and chair of the composition department. 

A new release from Harmonia Mundi features two of Kyr’s major choral works, The Cloud of Unknowing and Songs of the Soul, together with a short unaccompanied choral work, The Singer’s Ode.

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Grammy-nominated conductor, Craig Hella Johnson directs Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra with soloists soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig

There is a lovely, mellifluous choral texture from Conspirare in this fine unaccompanied setting of Kyr’s own text, The Singer’s Ode (2012).  The music rises to a short climax before its gentle, quiet coda where the choir hold the final note until it fades.

The Cloud of Unknowing (2013) is a more substantial work, in two parts. This oratorio sets texts by St. Teresa of Avila, sung in 16th century Castilian Spanish; Psalms 42 and 136, sung in Latin and an anonymous 14th century text on contemplation, from which the work draws its title, sung in English. It explores the relationship between human and divine love.

Part I: Songs of the Night opens with Unknowing (anon. 14th c.), baritone David Farwig entering over strings before Esteli Gomez joins in this imaginatively written piece with beautifully written textures for the choir when they add there fine sound. There is an orchestral conclusion as the strings quietly fade. Esteli Gomez opens Fearing (St. Teresa of Avila) with the orchestra providing little string pizzicato decorations as well as a lovely solo violin contribution. Soon David Farwig enters to duet with Gomez. Both these soloists have very fine musical voices that blend especially well together.

Forgetting (anon. 14th c.) follows straight on, with the choir singing gently over hushed tremolo strings as this section gently rises. What a fine choir this is. The final piece in Part I, Longing (Psalm 42), is beautifully restrained. The choral sound richens and tries to rise a little, but continues to gently undulate with again Kyr’s fine choral textures subtly supported by the orchestra. Eventually the choir reach a pinnacle of vocal expressiveness with some lovely harmonies and finely sensitive singing before quietly fading away.

The two soloists come together again in Waiting (St. Teresa of Avila) the first section of Part II: Songs of Dawn with the orchestra providing a lovely pulse as they move ahead in this fine setting. The choir joins and there is, at the end, a solo violin passage that leads straight into Thinking (anon. 14th c.), where the choir take over, with orchestral accompaniment, the baritone voices conversing with the soprano voices in a finely written section. Kyr eventually overlays the voices, to brilliant effect.

The soloists return to duet again in Beseeching (St. Teresa of Avila) another lovely setting, full of Mediterranean warmth and some particularly fine singing from the two soloists. The choir enters with an orchestral bass ground in Piercing (anon. 14th c.), the strings providing a dramatic edge. The choir gains in intensity and tempo, concluding on a climax.

We move straight into Surrendering (St. Teresa of Avila) with a pure voice Esteli Gomez singing ‘Nada te turbe’ (Let nothing upset you) before David Farwig enters over strings passage singing the next line, nada te espante (Let nothing startle you) before they combine in this most beautiful section. Later the choir enters adding a lovely choral layer to this section before taking the lead. We are taken rapidly into Enduring (Psalm 136) a fast, rhythmic section where the soloists and choir alternate and overlay in a series of verses and responses, reaching a kind of ecstasy in the coda.

The cantata, Songs of the Soul (2011) traces the journey of the soul from being earthbound and despairing to a state of transcendence and joy. The odd numbered movements are for chorus and strings and set various biblical texts, whilst the even numbered movements are for soprano, baritone and strings and are settings of Noche oscura (Dark Night) a mystical poem by St. John of the Cross.

A deep resonant choir rises up slowly in the Latin setting from Psalm 69 and Jonah, Descending: From the Abyss, with some beautiful choral writing. Kyr’s part writing is superbly done with lovely harmonies and textures. The music rises in an appeal of increasing desperation, before quietening again with Craig Hella Johnson shaping the choir beautifully. The music descends to the depths towards the end before rising up again with such a lovely layering of textures. It falls, again, to the depths, to end on a deep rich note.

Baritone, David Farwig, is first heard in Venturing: On a Dark Night, a setting of St. John of the Cross, against an anguished small string ensemble Farwig sings superbly with fine vocal textures as he weaves around. Towards the end soprano, Esteli Gomez enters, vocalising and creating a haunting atmosphere, right up to the end, a beautiful moment where she beautifully and gently rises up.

Choir and string orchestra appear as Hoping: Toward Dawn, a setting of Psalm 130 slowly and gently rises up. The music soon becomes dramatic but drops to a hush before the choir moves slowly forward again. It rises up again, centrally, before gently leading to the conclusion with some especially fine individual choral sections leading to a hushed end with sopranos singing over basses.

Strings and baritone open Transforming: Beloved into Lover in this heartfelt setting of St John of the Cross with brilliantly done string textures. Esteli Gomez enters for second verse and combines with Farwig for the third and last verse weaving some fine lines.

The mellifluous sounds of this fine choir return for Arising: A Time for Song (St. John of the Cross) with Johnson achieving some lovely little nuances in gentle rocking motion before this section slowly rises in intensity to the end.

Uniting: Leaving My Cares (St John of the Cross) opens with Gomez bringing a lovely crystalline purity to this exquisite setting, accompanied by the barest string ensemble. Farwig joins to vocalise this time adding an intoxicatingly lovely sound, before joining in the text of the last verse. There is such a lovely hushed coda as the strings bring about the end.

Choir opens gently in Transcending: And Love Remains, a setting from Corinthians, with Kyr again layering his vocal forces to perfection. The music slowly rises and falls whilst overall becoming more passionate as the soul reaches a transcendent state on a long held choral note.

This is a particularly fine choral work that deserves to become popular.

This is an impressive disc all round with some of the finest contemporary choral music around. The performances are superb. The recording from Texas A and M University-Corpus Christi Performing Arts Center, Corpus Christi, Texas is excellent and there are excellent booklet notes from Robert Kyr as well as full texts and translations in a beautifully produced booklet. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Songs by Jake Heggie that follow in the great tradition of American song though with a more modern twist on a new release from Naxos

American composer Jack Heggie (b.1961) is well known for his successful operas such as Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, To Hell and Back, and Out of Darkness that have been produced extensively on five continents. However, he has also composed choral, orchestral and chamber works as well as more than 250 songs.

Heggie is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and has been a guest artist at Boston University, Bucknell, Cornell, SUNY Fredonia, UNT College of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Colorado, University of Oregon, and Vanderbilt University. He has also been a resident artist at summer festivals such as SongFest at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Washington State, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, Illinois and VISI (Vancouver International Song Institute).

It is Heggie’s songs that feature on a new release from Naxos entitled Connections: Three Song Cycles with soprano, Regina Zona and pianist, Kathleen Tagg


The first set of songs on this disc are the five that make up Natural Selection (1997), a setting of poems by the San Francisco Bay writer, Gini Savage, that trace a young woman’s search for identity.

Creation opens with an insistent piano motif. When soprano, Regina Zona enters she has a fine, extremely musical voice though with a somewhat wide vibrato in this very evocative song.

After a piano flourish that opens Animal Passion, the soprano enters in this lively setting with a tango rhythm. There is some particularly attractive piano writing. Regina Zona is really terrific in this song, one that really suits her voice. She gives much passion in the last line.

Zona does a tremendous job with Alas! Alack! another faster song that again suits her voice so well. This is an amusing text which the soprano picks up so well. With Indian Summer – Blue Zona catches the bluesy opening brilliantly and revels in the transitions between  jazz rhythms and the slower, bluesy style as does pianist Kathleen Tagg.

Joy Alone (Connection) returns us to a tender, flowing song though not one that allows the soloist any respite with many changes in tempo and some difficult intervals. There are some glorious passages in the latter part of this song.

With Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) Heggie attempts to give a voice to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, setting three texts by American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and one of his own.

Piano flourishes open Ophelia’s Song before Regina Zona enters in this setting of Heggie’s own text, very effective with a distinct American feel. Moving to the St. Vincent Millay settings Women Have Loved Before Zona displays her flexibility as the music surges around, full of vocal power and control. There is so much variety of feeling in these songs, particularly this one.

Not in a Silver Casket has a lovely, gently undulating melody to which Zona brings a heartfelt feeling with fine accompaniment from Tagg. This is a particularly fine song.

There is a beautifully limpid piano introduction to Spring where, again, Heggie uses unusual rhythmic changes and varying tempi to create a curiously attractive setting. Zona brings all of her passion and feeling to this song before the hushed end.

Eve-Song (1996), a setting of texts by Philip Little (b.1950), offers a modern perspective on the biblical Eve. My Name opens gently as the soprano, Regina Zona vocalises with the piano before the words ‘Eve, Eve…’ subtly appear. There is fine, sensitive playing from Kathleen Tagg as well as beautifully shaped singing from Zona, whose lower textures are particularly fine. The song rises in drama with Heggie’s constant changes of rhythm, before the dissonant, quiet conclusion.

An undulating piano theme opens Even in this gentle setting. Regina Zona is lovely in her restrained beautiful, sensitive singing. Good is more upbeat with a syncopated piano rhythm well handled by Zona with fine control and understanding of the text.  

Heggie’s way with rhythm works extremely well again in Listen, a setting that creates a kind of sensuousness around the words ‘My entire body ripples up and down…’  Snake introduces more jazz rhythms where Zola is in her element, handling the rhythms with real style and panache in this well conceived setting of the words ‘…Sweet, sour, salty, bitter. And the taste of air, Of rottenness.’

Woe to Man receives an outpouring of feeling in the opening before the mood suddenly lightens with the style of an old fashioned music hall song. But the ‘woe’ doesn’t entirely disappear despite the rather lighter end. The Wound is a lullaby concerning birth, beautifully sung with finely sensitive accompaniment. To end this cycle we have perhaps the finest song, The Farm, a gentle song as Eve, in her old age, tries to remember Eden. This is a poignant conclusion to this cycle and this disc.

All lovers of song should acquire this disc, particularly those attracted to American song. These settings follow in the great tradition of American song such as Copland and Barber though with a more modern twist.

The recording is very good and there are first rate, informative booklet notes by Kathleen Tagg, Regina Zona and Jack Heggie. There are full English texts.