E Pluribus Unum

The motto of our nation is E pluribus Unum – Latin for “of many, one” – and I believe that, in spite of all political view points, we can coexist and work together for a better nation for us and for future generations. God bless all of us and God bless America.

Songs of comfort and hope

Songs of comfort and hope is the title of a new CD being released by Sony. The album offers a welcome musical balm for our spirits in these troubled times. The CD includes beloved familiar songs arranged for cellist Yo Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott.

Ranging from traditional, folk, and American show tunes to world music and classical songs by Bloch, Grieg and Rachmaninoff, the list of gems includes Amazing Grace…Shenandoah, Ol’ Man River Goin’ Home…Jewish Song…Zdes’ khorosho…Moscow Nights…Over the RainbowRain Falling from the RoofSong Without Words…Waltzing MatildaScarborough Fair…Solveig’s SongLes Chemins de l’Amour…Marietta’s LiedThula BabaThe Last Rose of SummerDanny BoyGracias a la VidaWe’ll Meet Again.

As we have come to expect from the duo of YoYoMa and Kathryn Stott, the playing is honestly straightforward and totally devoid of any sentimentalizing, with no condescension towards the humble origins of Scarborough Fair or Danny Boy and with the same respect and musicality given in equal amounts to Jerome Kern and to Felix Mendelssohn.

We were hard put to label this album. It is not strictly classical in its selections, even though the playing is idiomatically that of two concert artists to whom the label crossover would be offensive. Throughout his wide ranging explorations of everything from Bach to Tango, Yo Yo Ma has proven time and again that music is either good or bad regardless of its origins, and all tghe music in this gem of a CD is good music.

Rafael de Acha  www.RafaelMusicNotes.com     

Music of Florent Schmidt

French composer Florent Schmidt (1870-1958) bridged many epochs and essayed many ideas in his compositions. Coming of age during the so called Belle Époque and maturing as an artist during the first decades of the 20th century, Schmidt became friends with the who’s who of French artists when he fell in with Les Apaches, a group of artists that at one time or another included the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky.

Even though it would have logical for Schmidt to be influenced by the teachings of Massenet and Fauré, with both of whom he studied at the Conservatoire, as well as by the music of Ravel and some of the other French members of Les Apaches, Schmidt gravitated instead to the Germanic ideas about orchestration of Wagner and Strauss and Stravinsky’s modernisms.

Not well liked in Parisian musical circles not only by the mere fact of being a caustic critic, but also by both his eccentric behavior at concerts which he would disrupt by yelling insults at the performers, and by his Anti-Semitism (once yelling “Vive Hitler!” at a concert featuring the music of Kurt Weill), Schmidt was hated by his off-putting personality and ill-mannered behavior.

But personality aside and sixty years after his death, Schmidt’s music is largely neglected so that the release of this CD of his music, beautifully executed by Maestra JoAnn Falletta, here conducting Orianne with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the honeyed-voice mezzo-soprano Susan Platts singing both La Tragédie de Salomé and Musique sur l’eau, and the superb violinist Nikki Choi playing Légende, is a welcome addition to the NAXOS catalogue.

Rafael de Acha  www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

A SIX-CD VILLA-LOBOS COLLECTION JUST ISSUED BY NAXOS

Heitor Villa⁠-⁠Lobos wrote eleven symphonies, written between 1916 and 1957. Ranging from his first five: nos. 1 –O Imprevisto (Unforeseen); 2 – Ascensão (Ascension); 3 – Guerra (War); 4 – A Vitória  (Victory); through the mature no. 6- Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil (On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil); and numbers 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12; the tenth: Sinfonia ameríndia com coros (Amerindian Choral Symphony, and the lost 5th , they offer a panoramic aural landscape of the Brazilian composer’s talent.

Villa-Lobos – self-taught, alternately abhorred for his politics and admired by both his compatriots and the likes of Segovia, Milhaud and Rubinstein for his artistry – is a figure of great contrasts who found his true musical soul and inspiration in the sounds of Brazilian popular music.

At times his early works come off sounding derivative and pseudo-European, but when inspired and mature, his compositions burst forth with tremendous energy, Brazilian rhythmic pulse, and sweeping melody, never more than in his sixth and tenth symphonies and in the symphonic poem Uirapuru, a 1917 work subtitled O passarinho encantado (The Enchanted Little Bird) as enchanting a composition as the feathered subject of its title.

I highly recommend this six-CD Naxos collection (Naxos 8.506039) that continues the label’s invaluable ongoing exploration of Brazilian concert music, here played to utter perfection by the superb São Paulo Symphony Orchestra led by Isaac Karabtchevsky.

Rafael de Acha                  www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Ian Bostridge sings Die schöne Müllerin

English tenor Ian Bostridge recently sang a Wigmore Hall performance of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin accompanied by pianist Saskia Giorgini captured and now released by Pentatone (PTC5186775, CD).

Needed for a great performance of Die schöne Müllerin, to begin with, are a keen pair of interpreters – the pianist not merely an accompanist but a sensitive artist with a gift for both following the singer and for imprinting on Schubert’s piano part the collaborative artist’s viewpoint, one consonant with that of the singer.

As for the singer, a gifted artist is required, one endowed with a supple vocal instrument capable of singing twenty songs, many of them strophic, avoiding sameness and with the ability to imbue each song with a gamut of colors ranging from melancholy, to passion, to anger and to ultimate resignation.

While tenor Ian Bostridge has enjoyed a successful career primarily as a recitalist and concert singer since making his professional debut at the age of 27, today his vocal instrument betrays some wear and tear, most evident in the top range that once was easy vocal territory for his light lyric voice. While  he is fully in command of the most dramatic of the songs in the cycle – Ungeduld, for example, in an earlier recording with pianist Mitsuko Uchida, today at age 56 he has to reach for the top notes in that song, creating the impression of discomfort in that part of his voice and evidencing some roughness in his tone.

Ian Bostridge is still capable of singing with utter gentleness the more lyrical songs in the cycle – Wohin, for one, and the final sequence of Trockne Blumen, Der Müller und der Bach, and Des Baches Wiegenlied.

Schubert wrote these songs for the tenor voice, although he later transposed them to medium voice keys accessible to baritones, such as Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Gerard Souzay, Mathias Goerne, and Hermann Prey. Tenors Jonas Kauffmann, Christoph Prégardien, and Fritz Wunderlich among countless others have sung and recorded Schubert’s song cycle  Die schöne Müllerin in the original keys all with a modicum of success. I prefer the recordings of baritone Hermann Prey and tenor Fritz Wunderlich, both of which attain vocal perfection and the ability to get across the words of Wilhelm Müller.

To summarize, throughout his thirty year career Ian Bostridge has achieved many glories. Perhaps   the time has come for him to reconsider his repertory choices, so that we can remember him not only as the great singer of three decades ago but as one of today’s most skilled concert singers.

Rafael de Acha  www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Gloriae Dei Cantores sing the music of Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt came across the story of the fourth century Christian hermit Agathon, who lived alone in the Egyptian desert. Agathon met a leper who tested his Christian mettle through a series of tests. Once Agathon met the challenge, the leper revealed himself as an angel of God, and Agathon was blessed. Thus the story goes that inspired Estonian composer to pen his L’Abbé Agathon, a choral work that adopts some characteristics from Opera, some from Oratorio, and which creates in its own unique manner a compelling musical narrative featured in a new NAXOS release of Arvo Pärt choral music by the extraordinarily gifted Gloriae Dei Cantores in their very own label.

The album – available on several platforms –  also includes five other works by the Estonian master. An ethereal hymn to the Virgin mother, Salve Regina and an intensely emotional Magnificat, a heartfelt Nunc dimitis, and the closing Stabat Mater, a celebratory choral-instrumental paean to Mary exemplify the compositional breadth and depth of Arvo Pärt, an iconic 20th century musical genius who has traversed from an early career dalliance with Atonalism to a sui generis mature aesthetic he termed Tintinnabulation  whose roots grow out of Medieval Chant and Renaissance Polyphony.

Pärt’s compositions are impeccably sung by the Gloriae Dei Cantores: immaculately musical, pure of tone, perfect of diction, the superb ensemble is powerfully led by Richard K. Pugsley in an album that should provide the listener, as it did me, with a quiet hour of utterly peaceful music.

Rafael de Acha  www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Two works by Jonathan Leshnoff

Thanks to various CD’s released by REFERENCE RECORDINGS I have become an admirer of the music of American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Over the past two years I have enthusiastically reviewed two of his works: the Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon, and his Symphony no. 4, “Heichalos.”

In a recent REFERENCE RECORDINGS release featuring Leshnoff’s piano concerto and his Symphony no. 3, Michael Stern leads the formidable Kansas Symphony Orchestra, with Joyce Yang as the concerto soloist and baritone Stephen Powell as the vocal soloist in the symphony’s third movement.

The impressive lineup of soloists and the sterling work of the Kansas musicians numbers immense artistic rewards in this treasure of a recording, impeccably engineered and produced by Dirk Sobatka of Soundmirror.

Jonathan Leshnoff explains and insightfully annotates his music better than anyone else could in his excellently written liner notes. The concerto – a 2019 composition dedicated to Joyce Yang is, as so much of Leshnoff music a spiritual work, deeply anchored in Jewish mysticism. Structured in four movements – a straightforward Allegro, a meditative Lento, a playful and brief Scherzo, and a rousing Finale – the composition is technically challenging, and it affords the soloist numerous opportunities to display her virtuosity.  Her sensitivity, when the music calls for a cantabile approach, reminds the listener of the immensity of Joyce Yang’s pianistic gifts.

The Symphony no. 3 is a riveting composition that incorporates into its third movement the texts of two letters unearthed by the composer in the archives of the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas. One is from Dr. Charles Irons, who served with the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia. The other is from Lieutenant James Kellogg Burnham Hockaday, a First Lieutenant, 354th Infantry, 89th Division, from Kansas City, Missouri.

While the symphony’s first movement begins slowly and meditatively, the music eventually climaxes, leading to a restless second movement that in Leshnoff’s words is “depiction of war and battles.” The second movement leads to the heart and soul of the composition: a third movement that quietly makes its case musically to then calmly taper off into silence in a remarkable ending to a masterful work.

The texts are both touching and noble, with the composer allowing the words to be up front and center. Baritone Stephen Powell was chosen for the task and he delivers a wonderful performance with utmost vocal ease and flawless diction.

The Kansas City Symphony, led by Michael Stern provides first class support to the soloists and a deeply committed approach to the music of Jonathan Leshnoff.

Rafael de Acha

www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS

Bright Shiny Things is releasing VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS

In a world-premiere recording of eighteenth century a cappella music conceived by and written for members of the Pennsylvania Ephrata community, Bright Shiny Things introduces the listener to American music by members of a Pietist community of celibate men and women that flourished during the 1700’s in Colonial America.

Dedicated to a simple life of work and worship, the self-sustaining Ephrata community, founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, encouraged the talents of its residents, among them Christianna Lassle, two of whose compositions are heard in this album.

Over 126 works, eleven of which are performed in this recording were unearthed, transcribed and edited by musicologist Christopher Dylan Herbert, who acted as both musical director and producer of the recording.

The results could hardly be improved upon. The flawless engineering, mastering, and mixing, the thoroughly informative liner notes, and the handsome packaging are all in service of the music, which proves to be beautiful and eminently accessible on first listening. The writing is straightforward, unembellished, true to the texts, and obeying a no-nonsense compositional code established by Conrad Beissel, the founder and director of the Ephrata Community.

In spite of the severe aesthetic of Beissel, the response of this listener was one of enchantment with the purity of the music and enormous respect for the various works and the dedication of its creators and the excellence and artistry of a superb quartet: Soprano Elizabeth Bates, Male Alto Clifton Massey, Tenor Nils Neubert, and Bass Steven Hrycelak.

VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS (BSTC 0141) is available from Bright Shiny Things ( www.brightshiny.ninja )

Rafael de Acha

www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER Douglas Knehans’ monodrama with libretto by Juanita Rockwell

Ice doubles the glass/divides in here from out there/white webbing the dark/– glazing patch wire branch and stone/crazing the snow’s smooth expanse/one red and one black/two koi move, each one solo/now this way now that/swim beneath a frozen sky/longing for another sun/your coat around me/hollowing out your pillow/your lamp still burning/making snow angels in sheets–nothing warms our empty bed/divides in here from out there

Thus begins Douglas Knehans’ monodrama BACKWARDS FROM WINTER, with a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, a work for voice, electronic cello and electronics issued by ablaze records (ar-00054)

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is an unusually structured musical journey taken in a retrograde manner, commencing with a desolate depiction of a woman in a darkening winter of the physical world and the soul.

Longing, separation, grief – are motives that will echo throughout a four chapter account that begins with the chill of winter, then moves to the cool of fall, then to the heat of summer, and finally to the joys of spring, with interludes separating the sections, in each of which the emotions that began the trip into memory gradually change from utter desolation to recent grief to the memory of intense passion to the hope eternal that lives in spring.

With great economy of means composer Douglas Knehans has created a potently compelling composition for the stage that should prove utterly viable for production now more than ever in the perilous world in which the arts live.

Conceived for soprano voice and one non-singing actor and scored for one accompanying instrument and electronics, BACKWARDS FROM WINTER should allow great freedom to any stage director, given its poetic, non-linear narrative.

The role of the woman is taxing, calling for endurance and utter comfort in the upper reaches of the soprano range, demands that do not seem to faze soprano Judith Weusten, who delivers an impressively sung and intensely expressive performance in this recording.

The electronic cello part is beautifully played by Antonis Pratsinakis, and composer Knehans provides all manner of electronic effects, strongly supported by engineers Greg Gurr and Silas Brown.

All in all BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is a superb chamber opera whose future – we fervently hope – will be bright and fruitful.

Rafael de Acha    www.RafaelMusicNotes.com     September 24, 2020           

MUSIC FROM LATVIA by Talivaldis Keninš

Talivaldis Keninš (1919–2008) is like many other artists of Latvian heritage – through no fault of his – a victim of the Latvian Diaspora endured by the people of the small European nation during the years in which their country was under Soviet domination.

Born in Latvia, Ķeniņš lived most of his life in Paris and Canada, where he taught and continued to compose, before returning home in his latter years.

His Concerto di camera No. 1 (1981) written for flute, clarinet and piano is intriguingly structured and nobly played on this CD by Tommaso Pratola (flute), Mārtiņš Circenis, (clarinet), and pianist Agnese Egliņa. It is here given a compelling performance led by Guntis Kuzma,.

Keninš’ Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1990) is a dramatic and at times anguished work in which the composer expresses his feelings about the events that led to the long awaited liberation of Latvia in 1991.

The concerto is divided into a fast/slow/fast structure, in which the brief first and last movements call for virtuosic playing here generously provided by percussionist Edgars Saksons and pianist Agnese Egliņa, led again by Guntis Kuzma.

Ķeniņš wrote his First Symphony in 1959. The work melds the folk music of the Baltic people and the contemporary in a composition brief in duration but expansive in scope, given in this Ondine release a superb rendition under the baton of Andris Poga.

As someone who writes about music I have become familiar with the work of Latvian conductors Andris Nelsons and Mariss Jansons, violinist Gidon Kremer, and soprano Kristine Opolais. Yet I shamefully confess to complete ignorance about Latvian music, which this terrific Ondine release will help me gradually remedy.

Rafael de Acha   www.RafaelMusicNotes.com September 23, 2020

For those wishing to listen to a sample of Talivaldis Keninš’ music here are two of his choral numbers: