02 Dussek MesseJL Dussek –  Messe Solomnelle
Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr
AAM Records AAM011 (aam.co.uk)

Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) is one of Western music’s most underrated yet influential personas, credited with guiding the expansion of the pianoforte’s range to six octaves and being the first performing pianist to sit with his profile to the audience, rather than facing them head-on. In addition to his work as a performer, Dussek was also a prolific and inspired composer, writing works which feature great lyricism and striking contrasts. Although once respected and highly regarded throughout Europe, Dussek fell out of popular favour after his death and performances of his works remain unjustly rare today.

Amidst this apparent neglect, the Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of Dussek’s Messe Solemnelle shines a much-deserved light on this magnificent work and its creator. Discovered in the Conservatory Library in Florence in 2015, the manuscript score was transcribed by AAM director Richard Egarr and musicologist Reinhard Siegert, leading to its first modern performance in 2019. 

A late classical-era work, the mass is reminiscent of the works of Beethoven and Mozart, with Dussek’s own unique voice at the forefront. Throughout the Messe one is struck by the beautiful melodiousness and expert craft in each movement; nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary, but rather that every note is exactly where it needs to be, resulting in a sound that is effortless and streamlined. As we expect with Dussek, the dynamic contrasts are extraordinarily effective and contribute tremendous energy to the entire work, both within individual movements and between the larger sections of the mass itself. 

One of the world’s finest period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music does not disappoint. From beginning to end, the care and attention they give to every musical subtlety and nuance breathes life into this newly discovered work, inviting listeners to embark on a journey of their own to discover Dussek and his Messe Solemnelle for themselves.

03 Das Lied de LeeuwMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Lucile Richardot; Yves Saelens; Het Collectief; Reinbert de Leeuw
Alpha ALPHA633 (naxosdirect.com/items/das-lied-von-der-erde-543432)

The project to create a chamber version of Mahler’s 1908 orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde was an initiative of Arnold Schoenberg, who intended to perform this reduction for 13 players for his Society for Private Musical Performances, an exclusive concert series devoted to new music which ran for three years from 1919 to 1921. Schoenberg indicated roughly how this might be achieved by annotating the full score, leaving the details to be worked out by an acolyte (likely Anton Webern). Ultimately, however, the project was abandoned as the Society went bankrupt due to the hyper-inflation that ravaged post-war Austria. In 1980 Universal Edition commissioned Rainer Riehn to make a performing edition of the score, which has proved compelling enough to have received over a dozen recordings to date. 

In 2019, the Belgian Het Collectief ensemble invited the esteemed Dutch maestro Reinbert de Leeuw, well known for his passionate advocacy for the music of Messiaen, Ligeti, Kagel, Kurtág, Vivier, Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya, to create and perform his own interpretation of this autumnal masterpiece at the Saintes Festival in France in July of that year; sadly, this would prove to be his last public performance. Subsequently, an ailing de Leeuw implored Thomas Dieltjens, the artistic director of the ensemble, to record his arrangement as soon as possible. In February 2020, following the completion of the recording sessions in Amsterdam, de Leeuw died at the age of 81. 

De Leeuw’s version of the work for the most part follows the broad outlines of the Riehn version but amplifies it with the addition of a second clarinet, assigns the bassoon to double on the contrabassoon (its cavernous low C is an indispensable element in the finale) and, most tellingly, adds a harp part to the ensemble while curtailing the incongruous piano part to the bare essentials. Add to this the outstanding sonic alchemy of the recording team and de Leeuw’s finely balanced direction and the result is a performance that for the first time didn’t leave me feeling short-changed by the reduced ensemble. The stunning interpretation by the French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is notable for its intimacy and finely nuanced word painting while the Belgian tenor Yves Saelens lends an appropriate swagger to his alternating extroverted numbers. In the closing movement of the finale, Der Abschied (The Farewell) de Leeuw provides a touching detail: while the voice gradually recedes into darkness on the word “ewig” (forever) the ensemble maintains an inexorable clockwork indifference, ignoring the indicated diminuendo. The earth alone survives, “the horizon is ever blue.” Farewell, Reinbert! You will be greatly missed.

04 Bruckner Mass MotetsBruckner – Mass in E Minor; Motets
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Academy of St Martin in the Fields; Sir Stephen Cleobury
King’s College Cambridge KGS0035 (kingscollegerecordings.com)

Described as “half simpleton, half god” by Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner remains a divisive figure in musical history. As a composer of immense symphonic structures at a time of fissure between followers of Brahms and Wagner, Bruckner was subject to severe criticism from both friend and foe, and these symphonies continue to divide listeners into pro- and anti-Bruckner factions, though less antagonistically than in the late 19th century.

In addition to his love of art, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and it is in his smaller-scale religious works that we find a level of universally praised beauty and genius unlike any other of his contemporaries, a point reinforced by this recording of the Mass in E Minor and motets by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Recorded shortly before the death of conductor Stephen Cleobury, this striking survey of Bruckner’s religiosity and skill is also a testament to the devotion and dedication of the man who led the King’s College choir for so many years.

While Bruckner’s music is often grouped with the massed-choir works of Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, this disc demonstrates that Bruckner, particularly in his smaller-scale material, can be ably taken on by chamber-sized groups, including choirs of men and boys. The timbral compromises suggested by this vocal disposition are, in fact, not compromises at all, for the purity of sound that is produced is essential to the transparent and acoustic-driven nature of these pieces. In a building with such reverberance as the St. Florian monastery, where Bruckner composed and worked for many years, or King’s College Chapel, it is the attack, decay and intonation that are of paramount importance, rather than the characteristically late-Romantic power and vibrato, a point reinforced by this stellar recording.

The music of Bruckner no longer needs apologists – it is breathtaking in its entirety and deserving of its place in music history. This recording once again demonstrates why this is so, revelling in the genius of that man who was once described as “half simpleton, half god.” This is music to soothe the soul in troubled times such as our own.

05 RusalkaDvořák – Rusalka
Soloists; Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Robin Ticciati
Opus Arte OA13020 (naxosdirect.com/search/809478013020)

Although Antonín Dvořák wrote ten operas, the fairytale Rusalka, written at the end of his life, was the only lasting triumph for the internationally renowned Czech composer. The reason was that most of Dvořák’s operas were felt to be dramatically weak, as a result of which he failed in his lifelong ambition to be recognized as Smetana’s heir.

Rusalka is a dreamily melodic opera set to Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, (which also included some Slavonic features), which was based on the tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué; also used by Hans Christian Andersen as well as by Pushkin. Dvořák’s beautiful score occasionally evokes both Wagner and Debussy, but it also has earthier passages which underline its Czech identity. As a love story, it remains unusual. Since Rusalka is rendered mute by a charmed spell and potion given to her by the witch Ježibaba she cannot speak to her beloved prince and so there is no conventional love duet. Yet, magically, the opera’s finest arias – including the famous Song of the Moon – belong to Rusalka. 

Sally Matthews plays the heroine with tragic majesty. Patricia Bardon’s Ježibaba is dark and beguiling while Evan Leroy Johnson plays the Prince with great eloquence. Rae Smith’s set design is breathtaking and Melly Still’s direction has an epic quality to it. All of this is superbly assisted by the Glyndebourne Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra which are expertly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

06 Stamford and HowellsStanford and Howells Remembered
The Cambridge Singers; John Rutter; Wayne Marshall
Collegium Records CSCD 524 (johnrutter.com/music)

This 2-CD set of choral music honours composers Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and his student and colleague Herbert Howells (1892-1983), each with a full disc of highly accomplished music wonderfully sung. It is a version remastered in 2020 from tracks originally recorded in 1992, with three added tracks of which Stanford’s exquisite Latin Magnificat is especially welcome. John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers excel in this music, and are complemented by the fine acoustics of Ely Cathedral. The above-mentioned Magnificat for double choir really surprised me with its unusual harmonies and variety of textures, while the more straightforward English Magnificats in G and B-flat, also on the disc, offer interesting comparisons. In the G-major work, soprano Caroline Ashton shines with her clear vibrato-less tone. Of other Stanford works I was especially taken with O for a closer walk, an intimate and moving setting of William Cowper’s poem.

Turning to Howells, the Cambridge Singers handle his works’ Eastern scales, impressionistic harmonies and complex textures effortlessly. On this disc, the Howells Requiem (1938) seems both expressive and mystical; perhaps Rutter’s own association with the composer gave him insights into the extraordinary moods of each section. The compelling, late anthem, The fear of the Lord (1976), which Howells composed for Rutter’s choir at Cambridge, is here. So is another favourite anthem, Like as the hart (1941), which actually strikes me as bluesy! And there is much more to be discovered.

08 Britten Peter GrimesBritten – Peter Grimes
Stuart Skelton; Erin Wall; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5250(2) (naxosdirect.com/search/095115525029)

What an extraordinary thing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is. After 75 years in existence, this work has become a centrepiece of the English operatic canon. Did Britten ever imagine it would become so celebrated when he first conceived of it? In an infamous flash of prophetic purpose, upon reading George Crabbe’s The Borough in a book shop in California ca. 1942, Britten “realized two things: that [he] must write an opera, and where [he] belonged.”

The newest recording of this seminal opus features star singers such as tenor Stuart Skelton, (in the lead role) and soprano Erin Wall (as Ellen Orford). Edward Gardner helms the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, amongst other choruses. From the outset of this record, we perceive laser-precise execution, resulting in a thoroughly energetic and inspired interpretation of this opera. Every last note of the score has been carefully considered by every musician involved. 

Three-quarters of a century on, performance practice now exist for Grimes. Gardner is aware of such traditions and works admirably within them, reimagining aspects of the opera while adhering to the performative lineage. Orchestral solos rival those of the singers themselves, with brilliant colours and edgy textures erupting from both choral and orchestral ensembles. Gardner still manages to surprise and provoke us, prompted by the nature of the libretto itself.

Skelton is the consummate Grimes, a role that has shaped his career in many ways. Canadian soprano Erin Wall is characteristically stunning in her performance of Ellen Orford, poignant and wistful. The music world has been deeply saddened by Wall’s recent death from cancer this October; she was but 44 years old. A shining light and a rare national treasure, Wall has departed from us far too soon, long before any of her last songs should have been sung.

 

09 Henze PrinzHans Werner Henze – Das Prinz von Homburg
Adams; Boecker; Margita; Schneiderman; Kallenberg; Ebbecke; Orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister
Naxos 2.110668 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313566853)

Towards the end of Hans Werner Henze’s great opera, Der Prinz von Homburg, soldiers from the Prince of Homburg’s regiment sing “Remember: feeling alone can save us.” They are pleading for mercy for their leader, a highly distractible, irrepressibly romantic dreamer, governed more by feeling than by rules. He is about to be executed for disregarding his orders – even though by not following them he led his troops to a crucial victory. 

This production from Stuttgart Opera in 2019, set in a run-down gymnasium, is no treat for the eyes. But director Stephan Kimmig charges it with urgency, theatricality and a deep commitment to the humanitarian concerns of Henze and the brilliant Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, whose libretto is based on a much-loved play from 1811 by Heinrich von Kleist. 

Kimmig is especially persuasive in highlighting the contrast between the Prince’s poetic world of imagination and the military’s regimented world of discipline in a way that forcefully resonates today, over 60 years after Henze wrote it – that is until the heavy-handed, awkward finale, where the cast pulls out scarves and T-shirts messaging sensitivity, empathy and freedom. 

Musically, the pleasures are innumerable. The singers are without exception convincing, especially Robin Adams as an endearing Prince. The orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart under the direction of Cornelius Meister is incisive in the gorgeous orchestral interludes, and responsive in arias like Homburg’s moving ode to immortality, Nun, o Unsterblichkeit.

11 Eric WhitacreEric Whitacre – The Sacred Veil
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Signum Classics SIGCD630 (naxosdirect.com/ search/635212063026)

The Sacred Veil is a collaboration between longtime friends, composer Eric Whitacre and poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In 2005, Silvestri lost his wife Julie to cancer, leaving him to raise their two young children. A decade later, Silvestri began to reflect on his loss and wrote poetry about his relationship with Julie, their courtship, love, hopes and dreams, and his loss and grief. The CD contains an interview with Whitacre and Silvestri where they discuss this; the booklet is generous, with each poem contextualized by Silvestri. 

The Sacred Veil refers to moments of births and deaths when a thin curtain, an almost imperceptible shield, lies between those who are living and those who have passed. The 12 movements each explore particular slivers of Silvestri’s reflections. The settings are intimate with poetry that offers powerful imagery throughout, the music is profound and heart wrenching, the chorus sounds exquisite, and pianist Lisa Edwards and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s emotional artistry is matched by their superb musical abilities.

The Sacred Veil is a deeply personal piece for Silvestri, yet the personal journey speaks to each of us individually. It is a memorable musical experience that transports us from one gripping moment to another and reaches its peak in the second-to-last movement with You Rise, I Fall; in the moment of death, when the loved one lets go and rises, those left behind descend into their darkest moments of grief. 

Premiered in February 2019, The Sacred Veil was recorded by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

12 Tonu KorvitsTõnu Kõrvits – You  Are Light and Morning
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Risto Joost
Ondine ODE 1363-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195136324)

Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits contributes a moving 60-minute work to the immense Estonian choral/orchestral repertoire with his colourful and detailed composition, You are Light and Morning (2019), performed here with compassion by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost.

Based on the poetry of 20th-century Italian writer, Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), the cycle abounds with emotional feelings of loss, grief, love, life and nature in Kõrvits’ Romantic- and Mahler-influenced tonal/atonal music. Six parts are sung in Italian and two in English. Highlights include the opening Fade In with its mysterious orchestral quiet minor chord that later reappears before the final song, enveloping the work in contemplative haunting soundscapes. The first part, Tu sei come una terra (You Are Like a Land), is accessible and modern simultaneously, as its introductory vocal motive (which recurs throughout the entire work), traditional choral colours and high string held notes with atonal touches, prepare the listener for what’s coming. Pavese’s poetic declaration to his love Constance is musically symbolized in To C. From C featuring full choir singing above softer walking/tiptoed pizzicato in the strings. The lush sound changes (like love sometimes) to suspenseful minor tonalities until the final vocal hum with more string plucks.  

As an Estonian-Canadian, I grew up and still listen to Estonian choral music. Kõrvits’ work here is so clearly his own, with the performers outdoing themselves in their interpretations.  Thank you/aitäh for this memorable music!

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