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A voice for new music

Glass: “Itaipu,” Salonen: “Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jaderlund,” Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, conductor ***, RCM

Contemporary choral music needs love -- an end to which this recording contributes amply. Grant Gershon leads his formidable group in two vital, recent entries in the field, each of which addresses a post-serial musical landscape in distinct ways.

Philip Glass’ 1989 work paying tribute to the epic hydroelectric dam bordering Brazil and Paraguay relies on his coolly heroic if overly familiar harmonic language, spiked by mercurial dissonances in the instrumental periphery. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s evocative “Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jaderlund,” written during his sabbatical from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2000 and premiered by the L.A. Master Chorale last March, manages a balance of forces both ethereal and impelling. Gershon and the ensemble effectively bring life to the swirling sensuality of the Swedish poet’s “Deep in the room” and “Kiss my mouth.”

This is work ideally suited to the essential, mysterious realm of choral music.

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-- Josef Woodard

Placido Domingo broadly defines the word ‘sacred’

“Sacred Songs” Placido Domingo, Placido Domingo, tenor; Sissel, vocalist; Paolo Rustichelli, piano, guitar and synthesizers; Luisa Domingo, harp; Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, Marcello Viotti, conductor, **, Deutsche Grammophon

If you think “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a sacred song, you may accept all the contents of this album of miscellany enthusiastically. Otherwise, call it Kyrie Lite. Granted, the veteran tenor’s singing is handsome and mellifluous, the pops accompaniments -- virtually everything here is arranged or overarranged for maximum accessibility -- pleasant. There are even three “Ave Marias,” including a nice one by P.D. Jr. Mostly, however, with legit but secular items such as Bach’s “Bist du bei mir” and Wagner’s “Der Engel,” this is just another hodgepodge.

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--Daniel Cariaga

Still-relevant Reichians

Steve Reich: “Tehillim” and “Desert Music”, Alarm Will Sound; Ossia; Alan Pierson, conductor, ***, Cantaloupe

These potent 1980s-vintage works, fine examples of Steve Reich’s imaginative text-setting skills, originally came out in the age of the LP. Heard back to back on one disc, in fresh and energetic new performances by two East Coast new music groups, they present complementary but also distinct angles on the composer’s aesthetic. It sounds as current and relevant as ever.

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Reich blended otherworldly voices, percussion and instrumental forces in creating the unique canvas for “Tehillim,” based on Psalms. William Carlos Williams’ beguiling poem “Desert Music” gets its musical due in Reich’s rhythmically nuanced setting, written in 1984 and revised in this leaner, meaner chamber version in 2001. At once propulsive and vaporous, the work defies any simple Minimalist categorization. On this recording, the final movement of “Desert Music” leaves you a bit breathless, with its rattling culmination of energies that have been slowly and craftily marshaled throughout, and then its sighing, enigmatic denouement.

--Josef Woodard

Choral works past and present

“In Excelsis” Choir of New College, Oxford; Edward Higginbottom, conductor, *** 1/2, Erato

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This disc juxtaposes glorious 16th century English choral polyphonic works with equally worthy contemporary church pieces, as well as less deeply affecting secular choruses. No one has to make a case for Thomas Tallis or the first John Taverner (1490-1545), but some of their contemporaries deserve to be better known. Nicholas Ludford (1490-1557), for instance, wrote a sumptuous “Ave cujus conceptio.”

Even so, the contemporaries dazzle. The John Taverner born in 1944 penned an ecstatic “Hymn to the Mother of God,” as well as two powerful settings of poems by William Blake (“The Lamb” and “The Tyger”). Giles Swayne wrote a rhythm-popping Magnificat (1982) that takes flight from African responsive chant. The men and boys Choir of New College, Oxford, sing lovingly under the direction of Edward Higginbottom.

--Chris Pasles

Rip-roaring Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky: “Souvenir de Florence,” Dvorak: Sextet in A, Sarah Chang, Bernhard Hartog, violins; Wolfram Christ, Tanja Christ, violas; Georg Faust, Olaf Maninger, cellos, ***, EMI Classics

The classical shelves are almost evenly split between versions of “Souvenir de Florence” for string orchestra and the original grouping for sextet as heard here. Either way, it’s a winningly exuberant piece that for all of its swinging, surging, memorable tunes has received strangely lukewarm press over the years.

Chang’s chamber-mates are all current or former members of the Berlin Philharmonic -- and they let go of their luxurious collective tone just enough to let it rip at the right moments (though the Borodin Quartet’s furious BMG/Melodiya recording, with Mstislav Rostropovich as guest cellist, beats them in sheer visceral impact). They apply more warmth and rubato to the seldom-recorded Dvorak Sextet, an agreeable work that, true to form, follows most of the traditional Central European chamber music formulas while casting much of the material in distinctly Czech colors.

-- Richard S. Ginell

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French sonatas get the Midori touch

French Violin Sonatas, Poulenc, Debussy, Saint-Saens

Midori, violin; Robert McDonald, piano, ****, Sony Classical

What do these three sonatas have in common? What makes them Gallic? Lightness, joy and optimism -- with a subtext of melancholy. Midori and her longtime pianist, McDonald, bring out all the nuances of style, of pleasure, of gentle hedonism in all three sonatas, bringing to bear particularly in Poulenc’s single work in the form, a haunting piece dedicated to the memory of Federico Garcia Lorca, and rewritten after the death of violinist Ginette Neveu, who played it often with the composer. And both Midori and McDonald sail handsomely through Saint-Saens’ First Sonata with the right combination of breeziness and sentiment. They do the same for Debussy’s cogent, stoic, final work. The playing is splendid; moreover, it communicates.

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--Daniel Cariaga

Rostropovich’s Shostakovich

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor, *** 1/2, LSO

Shostakovich won the Lenin Prize in 1958 for this symphony, whose subtitle, “The Year 1905,” commemorates the first Russian Revolution. Dissidents denounced the composer for selling out. Western critics regarded the work as glorified film music. Turns out just about everyone was wrong. There is little uplift in the long adagios (first and third movements) that establish a sense of tension and desolation. The depiction of the czar’s troops firing into the crowd (second movement) does plunge us into the center of a horrifying event, but the march final movement turns out to be fueled with bitterness, anger, even a wild hysteria. The ending sounds more apocalyptic than it does affirmative. Rostropovich sustains the tension and the composer’s dry realism to create an epic canvas.

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--Chris Pasles

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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