Thursday, 6 February 2014

CD Reviews - February 2014

The Italian, all male Renaissance polyphony group, Odhecaton were new to me, but they have been around since 1998 and have a number of discs behind them, as well as several awards.  Their latest recording, entitled De Passione, consists of music by Franco-Flemish composers Josquin des Prez (c.1450/55–1521), Jacob Obrecht (1457/8-1505), Loyset Compère (c.1440-1518) and Gaspar van Weerbecke (c.1445-after 1516), all published by Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice in 1503.  The 11 singers are directed by Paolo Da Col, and the motets they have chosen for this collection all focus on texts relating to the passion and Holy Week.  The substantial works by Josquin (O Domine Iesu Christe, Miserere mei Deus, and Qui velatus facie fuisti) are familiar to me, and they receive assured and beautifully sustained performances here.  Compère’s equally substantial In nomine Iesu was new to me, however, and is beautifully rich in texture, with Odhecaton exploiting the composer’s use of the lower registers of all the voice parts.  I really enjoyed the sound world of all male voices, and the countertenors consistently avoided the common tendency for a slightly hooty sound on top, blending perfectly with the lower voices.  Obrecht’s subtle Parce Domine opens the disc, and van Weerbecke’s dark, sonorous Tenebrae factae sunt is an added treat.  This is followed on the disc by a startling contrast – which certainly surprised me on first listening, as I hadn’t read the notes beforehand.  Sardinian singer Clara Murtas sings a solo traditional lament, O tristu fatale die.  The style is a sudden change, but somehow finds a fitting place here, the mother of Jesus’ lament almost providing a release after the contained and controlled polyphony.  To follow this and close the disc, Odhecaton return with Josquin’s Miserere mei Deus.  Highly recommended.

Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continue the series of Orchestral Works by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) they took over following the sad death of Richard Hickox.  The latest volume contains two works, The Mystic Trumpeter, and his First Choral Symphony.  Both works employ a soprano soloist, here the great Susan Gritton, and they are joined in the Choral Symphony by the BBC Symphony Chorus.  The Mystic Trumpeter is the shorter work here, and perhaps because of this, is the more successful in my mind.  The text is by Walt Whitman, and Holst achieves a real sense of structure, guided by the poem, building to suitable peaks, before subsiding into peace and tranquility at its close.  The First Choral Symphony, at over 50 minutes long, however, struggles to maintain coherency for me.  There is great music here, and the first three movements succeed to a great extent in creating a variety of textures and moods from the diverse texts by Keats – the seven beats to a bar Baccahanal, the relaxed calm of the second movement’s Ode, and the delicate orchestral textures at the close of the third movement.  But having explored this variety, one gets the sense that Holst didn’t quite know how to conclude this mammoth work, and the finale dissapoints.  However, the performance here cannot be faulted and Gritton in particular is in fine form.  Credit also to the BBC Symphony Chorus, who produce a well-disciplined and rich sound throughout. 

Another continuing Chandos series with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, this time with Edward Gardner conducting two works by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).  His Stabat Mater from 1925/6, with solo voices in addition to the chorus and orchestra, is a striking and affecting work, with a stunningly beautiful lament from the solo soprano (here impressively sung by Lucy Crowe), and a fiendish fourth movement for just female choral voices, later joined by the female soloists.  Szymanowksi makes great use of these different forces, using choral chanting, a duet between solo alto (Pamela Helen Stephen) and clarinet, and melody in the final sixth movement for the solo soprano that is to die for.  The other piece here is the Choral Ballet, Harnasie, which is rooted in the culture of the Podhale region in the Tatra mountains in Poland.  Whilst there are moments reminiscent of Stravinsky and Janáček here, the overall effect is of a totally individual sound, and without even looking at the texts, images of folk dancing, revelry and wedding scenes are immediately conjured up.  In fact the story is of a bride who is abducted by a robber (Harnás).  I can’t profess to understanding Polish, but the BBC Symphony Chorus sound totally convincing and authentically unison in their diction, which must have been a considerable challenge.  There is real excitement and life in this music, which is fully expressed in this commanding performance from all concerned.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene, February 2014)