Stephen Layton’s Goldilocks “Messiah” recording: Just Right

Each year there are multiple new recordings of Handel’s most famous work, Messiah. Since Handel revised the work for each performance that he gave of Messiah, there is no such thing as an “original version,” so most recordings now attempt to recreate some particular performance or other, or occasionally other arrangements (e.g. Mozart’s) of the oratorio. Many of them are outstanding, but it is somewhat refreshing to hear a new recording that is a middle of the road performance, with a nod toward being historically informed, but performed with modern instruments.

Such is Stephen Layton’s new recording of Messiah with that wonderful British vocal ensemble Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia.  The uniformly excellent soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano, Iestyn Davies, countertenor, Allan Clayton, tenor, and Andrew Foster-Williams, bass.  Iestyn Davies is an up-and-coming countertenor, and to my mind is the best of the group.  Andrew Foster-Williams has a lovely, well-produced voice, but it seems a little light for some of the great exclamations required in Handel’s arias, especially “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which for me the standard will always be John Shirley-Quirk in Coliin Davis’s landmark recording from the mid-1960s.

The recording follows a live London performance with these forces in December 2008.  Polyphony’s annual performances of Messiah are a London tradition, so it is good to have a permanent audio souvenir.

Polyphony’s choral sound is clear and bright, with excellent diction.  A few of Layton’s dynamic choices seem a bit mannered, and I’m not sure what prompted his decision to begin the closing “Amen” chorus a capella, especially since Handel has a figured bass part for the opening of the chorus.

But like Goldilocks’s adventures at the three bears’ house, this recording is neither too hot at the cutting edge of performance practice, nor too cold with no style.  Rather it is a fine sensible and tasteful performance that should be pleasing to a wide audience.

Cleveland Orchestra’s “German Requiem”, plus a new work

This weekend Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Russell Braun as soloists. Robert Porco prepared the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  Rarely have I heard this work performed with such clarity and directness, yet with the requisite boldness and tenderness.  Franz is an outstanding choral conductor–a trait not always found in orchestral conductors, even those with talent for opera. The chorus is not left “on their own” to figure out what to do. I have witnessed even such notable conductors as Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leave the chorus behind in the dust.

With absolutely parochial interest, I note that the Norton Memorial Organ was used in this performance, played by Joela Jones, to give an added sonic “boost” to the bass, but also supporting the vocal lines.  It was mostly not audible, but it was “there,” and I’m glad they used the organ.

Russell Braun has a lovely voice, but he seemed a bit underpowered for this particular performance.  (Or perhaps Franz should have shut down the orchestra a bit more.)  In the single movement that the soprano soloist appears, one has gotten used to hearing light voices (think Kathleen Battle, Dawn Upshaw, or even the German Christine Schäfer). Nicole Cabell, although obviously a lyric soprano, has a darker, richer, more luscious voice.  It made a nice contrast with the “classic” texture of sound in the rest of the performance.

The concert opened with a Cleveland premiere of Chor (for orchestra), a 2003-04 work by German composer Jörg Widmann, who is beginning his two season tenure as the orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow. While it is impossible to judge a complex contemporary work on one hearing, what is not in question is the Cleveland Orchestra’s brilliant performance. The work is in a broad arc with a stupendous central climax marked with ear-splitting rolls on suspended cymbals, strings at extremely high pitch, and, I believe, multiple police whistles. (It was really too loud, and I felt forced to hold my ears.) The pace is slow, with many long notes overlapping one another.  An offstage solo trumpet (the orchestra’s amazing principal trumpet Michael Sachs) started the work with a dialogue with a bowed vibraphone and notes on an accordion (played by the ever-versatile Joela Jones).  The texture and amplitude gradually increase until the climax, then start to dissolve again, but with “speed bumps” along the way–huge interjections by the full orchestra interrupting the quiet flow of the music.  At several points there are quite tonal “chorale”-type passages of an almost of a Brahmsian nature, but always deconstructed, as if the aural equivalent of looking in a funhouse mirror.  The work makes extensive use of quarter-tone playing in all the parts, and the orchestra’s pitch and clarity were quite astonishing.  (After hearing Chor, I am tantalized by what the orchestra would make of Thomas Ades’s monumental and beautiful  Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker.  The orchestra is performing Ades’s Violin Concerto later this season, and Franz has conducted more of his music in the past.  Come on Franz, let’s have Tevot!)

Virtual Farm Boy is constantly complaining about too many standing ovations at concerts in Cleveland, but this is a case where the ovation was richly deserved.  The orchestra is off for a few weeks on European tour and a residency in Vienna.  We’ll look forward to their return in mid-November.

Cleveland Orchestra Rachmaninoff / Janacek spectacular

This weekend the Cleveland Orchestra performed what should be considered a highlight concert of this season. Franz Welser-Möst conducted Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (“Rach 3”) and after intermission Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” in a new, recently reconstructed early version which is considerably different from the later version usually heard.  The magnificent Ceveland Orchestra Chorus was joined by soloists Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; and Raymond Aceto, bass.  The concert opened with Debussy’s “Sirènes” from “Nocturnes.”

Leif Ove Andsnes played the hell out of the Rachmaninoff concerto. I normally think of him as an elegant and refined player; in this case  his elegance was matched by the ferocious virtuosity required for this concerto, which was equalled by Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra. There were poetic moments, but this was showpiece time.  The standing ovation (which for a change was richly deserved) was spontaneous at the end of this performance.

The star of the Janacek was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, whose diction in the church slavonic text was impeccable. Their declarations in the Credo movement would make anyone believe.  The soprano soloist has all the best solo bits,  and Measha Brueggergosman was in heroic voice.  She was most impressive in the beginning of the “Sanctus” movement.  She was standing so close to the conductor that at times I was afraid the Franz would clobber her. The rest of the soloists have much less to do.   Stuart Skelton made a brave attempt at the impossible tessitura of the tenor solos; he was, unfortunately, completely covered at times by the chorus and heavy orchestration.  Poor Nancy Maultsby had to sit through the whole affair to sing about four phrases of music.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in Cleveland

I turned in my tickets for the Cleveland Orchestra concert on Friday night (Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony) in order to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, at the Cathedral of St. John in downtown Cleveland.  I made the right choice.

I have several recordings of the Estonian choir, notably music by fellow Estonian Veljo Tormis, but also a landmark recording of the Rachmaninov “All Night Vespers,” so I knew that they were good, but their performance was nothing short of phenomenal, with laser-like precision in sound and intonation.  The Estonians make John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers and other famous choruses sound as if they are singing quarter-tone music.  What was downright eerie was that the Estonians did not seem to be working very hard to do what they were doing.  The discipline required cannot be underestimated.

The Estonian group has recorded  much of the choral music by Arvo Pärt (probably the Estonian composer best known in the West), and the first half of this program was devoted to Pärt’s music.  Only one of the works, “Da pacem Domine,” has been recorded.  The find of this program was Pärt’s 2004-2005 work “L’Abbe Agathon,” a musical parable about an abbot who encounters a leper and demonstrates Christian charity.  Sung in French, it was very moving. A soprano soloist sang the role of the leper, and a baritone soloist was the abbot.  The choir were corporate narrators (in much the same way that the chorus is the narrator in Pärt’s “St. John Passion.”)

The second half opened with an instrumental work by Erkki-Sven Tüür, “Action, Passion, Illusion,” which was also striking, especially the central “Passion” movement, which moved from low string polyphony upward through the string orchestra, ending in an unsettling high string cluster.

The remainder of the program was devoted to Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 112, “Beatus vir” for strings, continuo, soloists and choir.  The virtuoso soloists were all drawn from the choir.

As I’ve written before here, I think that there are in general too many standing ovations in Cleveland, but this is one concert that I can honestly and vigorously say deserved the ovation the performers received.  The audience was rewarded with an encore, a meltingly beautiful arrangement of an Estonian Christmas carol, mostly for women’s voices with strings, but in the end with the men humming along on the tune.

This concert has to be considered one of the top concerts of this season.  Cathedral music director Greg Heislman is to be congratulated and thanked for bringing the Estonians.  (The concert was also co-sponsored by the Cleveland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.)

AGO Organ Spectacular in Cleveland

Today was the self-proclaimed American Guild of Organists “Organ Spectacular,” the “world’s largest organ recital” with events going on all over the world to promote the organ as the King of Instruments.    Cleveland’s all-afternoon event was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, where Karel Paukert has been the organist/director of music for almost thirty years, and where they have three pipe organs: a classic Walter Holtkamp, Sr., instrument from 1952 (with some later mechanical updates to add couplers and a modern combination action); in the balcony a 1986 Hradetzky mechanical action in the Italian style; and a Baroque style positive organ by Vladimír Slajch.

There were demonstrations on the three organs, followed by “mini-recitals” by three locals (Linda Gardner, playing Stephen Paulus’s “Blithely breezing along”, commissioned by the AGO for the event; Horst Buchholz, new director of music for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, improvising first on Marian themes, and then on “Hyfrydol”, a tune submitted by an audience member; and Jonathan Moyer, new director of music at the Church of Covenant, in music by Bach and selections from Messiaen’s “Messe de la Pentecôte”) and the Mr. Paukert played a concert of music using the organ in an ensemble context, with works by Froberger and Zipoli (on the Hradetzky organ); Donald Erb (with handbells and wine glasses); an improvisation on a tune by Sigur Ros; Peter Eben (his beautiful “Song of Ruth” with mezzo Irene Roberts; and Karg Elert’s striking Third Symphonic Canzona, op. 85, no. 3 for organ, violin solo and female voices.

The afternoon ended with Evensong performed by the Senior Choir of St. Paul’s, conducted by Steven Plank and played by Mr. Paukert. As the closing voluntary, Mr. Paukert played Messiaen’s “Apparition of the Eternal Church.” After the climax of the piece and as it was coming to it’s quiet conclusion, the priest in the chapel adjoining the church’s nave began the Great Thanksgiving for the Eucharist that followed Evensong, and the the church’s carillon began to play.  It was an arresting moment that Messiaen himself might have appreciated.

Some of the highlights: Buchholz’s improvisation on “Hyfrydol” in the style of (you choose) Max Reger or Karg-Elert (I confess that German Romantic was not precisely the style that would have immediately come to mind; Moyer’s Messiaen; the Eben “Song of Ruth”; Paukert’s hymn improvisations.

There were also exhibits about the organ, an excellent program booklet, propaganda from the AGO, refreshments.  There was also a good crowd through the long afternoon.

Lauridsen rarities

Morten Lauridsen

Readers of this blog know of my pleasure in the music of Morten Lauridsen. Today I found a CD of vocal and choral music by him called Northwest Journey that has a few rarities, including a couple of arrangements for solo voices of famous choral works. His arrangement for solo soprano and piano of “O Magnum Mysterium” is simply ravishing. The composer himself is the pianist, and Jane Thorngren is the soprano, soaring up to the “Alleluias” and ending below the treble staff.

I have heard of Jane Thorngren for over 30 years, because she was in my time the most distinguished vocal alumna of Drake University, however, until this CD I have never actually heard her voice, which is very rich but lyric throughout its range. There is a picture on her web site of her as Mimi in the famous Zefirelli production of La Boheme at the Met.

I recommend the album.

New Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen - Nocturnes

For Christmas George gave me a new recording of choral works by the American composer Morten Lauridsen by the British group Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton. The new CD, called Nocturnes, has mostly secular works, but includes two early sacred anthems, plus a recent sacred work for men’s voices (“Ave, dulcissima Maria”) commissioned by the Harvard Glee Club. The CD opens with two Lauridsen “standards”, the Mid-Winter Songs and Les chansons des roses. The major new work is Nocturnes, three settings of poems by Rilke, Neruda, and a breathtaking setting of James Agee’s “Sure on This Shining Night” (most famously set by Samuel Barber). The works are all in Lauridsen’s signature style, close harmonies, tuneful, sensuous. This is contemporary music for people who don’t like contemporary music. Apparently Lauridsen’s music has become very popular in Britain–it has the best characteristics of John Rutter’s music–easy to listen to and rewarding to perform–but isn’t so saccharine.
Polyphony is one of the best choral ensembles in Britain. This Hyperion disc (not yet released in the U.S., but scheduled for sometime in February 2007) follows up on an earlier disc released by Polyphony that included Lauridsen’s “greatest hits”, Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium, among others.

I highly recommend the new disc.

There’ll Always Be an England

George sent me the following email message the other day. He often listens to the internet stream of BBC Radio 3 (the BBC’s mostly classical music station)

I have on Brian Kay’s Light Programme (which reminds one so much of the old days with Wayne Mack…[NOTE: Wayne Mack was a Cleveland radio fixture, and at the end of his career he had a noontime program on light music on WCLV-FM “Noon with Wayne Mack”, which George used to refer to as “Nausea at Noon.”]) and he just finished a long set of brass band music with a little chat about a performance of [G.F. Handel’s] Messiah he once put on with a brass band arrangement of the accompaniment… [italics added]

The mind fairly boggles.

Indeed it does.

William Dawson’s Spirituals

The Spirituals Of William L. Dawson (#2159)
One of the pioneers of the movement of creating “art music” out of the orally transmitted African-American spirituals was William Dawson (1899-1990). He was one of several notables including R. Nathaniel Dett and Harry T. Burleigh. Although Dawson composed a variety of concert music that was well-received and has been recorded, it is his spiritual arrangements that are his most lasting legacy. My church choir has performed several of them over the years. They are full-fledged choral works, not simple, requiring good intonation and rhythmic precision, and often operatic-level soloists. I recently stumbled upon a 1997 recording of Dawson’s most famous spirituals, performed by the St. Olaf Choir. What? That bastion of white American Lutheranism peforming these pieces? After one recovers from the shock of the idea, it does make sense: St. Olaf has always had purity of tone, pitch and rhythm. Their current director, Anton Armstrong, is African-American. And the Dawson arrangements have found a place in the standard choral repertoire.

The performances are excellent, as one expects from the famed St. Olaf Choir. They are the cream of the crop of a very musical college. The soprano soloist on several of the numbers is Marvis Martin. She has a full-bodied tone, but seems to have trouble sustaining breath control over even moderate-length phrases.

One rather bizarre artistic choice that Mr. Armstrong has made is in the tempo of one of the most famous of the spirituals, “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” The tempo marking is fast (as I recall, the half note =104). Armstrong conducts the refrains of “Soon ah will be done with the troubles of the world” as a very slow dirge, with the stanzas at the marked tempo. When I first heard it, I thought, “how odd,” but it does cast a different light on the arrangement.