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Highly Reviewed Recordings

September 19 - October 2, 2012

PART, A.: Wallfahrtslied (Ein) / Magnificat / Summa / Nunc dimittis / Te Deum (Pilgrim's Song) (Voces Musicales, Tallinn Sinfonietta / Joost)
(Estonian Record Productions: ERP2309)

PART, A.: Wallfahrtslied (Ein) / Magnificat / Summa / Nunc dimittis / Te Deum (Pilgrim's Song) (Voces Musicales, Tallinn Sinfonietta / Joost) Oh, Arvo Pärt. Whether one is in the mood to parse a score's rigorous generative processes, or to buy a CD of medieval chillout from a shop that also sells essential oils and/or art with dolphins in it, he always fits the bill. 

So from the Sol LeWitt–like spareness of the intersecting lines of Summa, Pärt's early Credo setting, to the darker, denser textures of the title track (Ein Wallfahrtslied), there is not a piece of music on "Pilgrim's Song" the new all-Arvo disc from Estonia's Chamber Choir Voces Musicales—that could fail to allure the novice listener. But please be warned that this is coming from a Pärt fanboy.

These are great pieces but is this the recording they deserve? Well, they've already gotten the recordings they deserve. Elsewhere, producer Manfred Eicher and conductors like Paul Hillier and Tõnu Kaljuste have put out reverb-drenched discs so flawless that they sound like somebody managed to tape the platonic ideal of a choir rather than a collection of mortal voices.

This album is not flawless. You may notice the wavering of a voice, the creak of a chair, an intake of breath. These young singers are astonishingly precise in Pärt's unforgivingly exposed vocal writing but can't quite summon Old Testament gravity with the same ease as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

Still, the humanness of "Pilgrim's Song" also creates an intimacy those desert island Pärt discs are missing. The sensitive young women of Voces Musicales bring Pärt's Magnificat a sweetness and pathos that lights the work from a gorgeous new angle. It helps that conductor Risto Joost brings out the most minute subtleties of each work while still understanding the difference between a meditation and a wallow.

WQXR Album of the Week

HOVHANESS, A.: Symphonies Nos. 1, "Exile Symphony" and 50, "Mount St. Helen" (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
(Naxos / Seattle Symphony Collection: 8.559717)

HOVHANESS, A.: Symphonies Nos. 1, Among the glories of the Naxos label has been its preservation of extraordinary projects by other labels in other times. The Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz, was extraordinarily attentive to 20th century American composers whose stock might have fallen without them. Listen to this revision of his first symphony and his Symphony No. 50 “Mount St. Helens” (Opus 360 no less) and you’ll have a sense of what a huge loss that would have been. The Mount St. Helens Symphony comes complete with volcanic eruption for its third movement and would, doubtless, be a hit for any concert hall where it was essayed. The difficulties of Peter Mennin might be thought to be roughly analogous to Hovhaness’ but different. His kind of neo-classic vigor, like Schuman’s, was easy to lose as music joined the 21st century but the “Moby Dick” Concertato for Orchestra and Third and Seventh Symphonies are exemplary works from a period when American composers took themselves seriously as both artists and citizens. It’s fine work and holds up beautifully.

© 2012 The Buffalo News

SAINT-SAENS, C.: Orchestral Music (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, N. Jarvi)
(Chandos: CHSA5104)

SAINT-SAENS, C.: Orchestral Music (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, N. Jarvi) Saint-Saëns miniatures and poems from Järvi’s RSNO

The core of this CD is formed by Saint-Saëns’s four symphonic poems, Le rouet d’Omphale, Phaëton, Danse macabre and La jeunesse d’Hercule. Neeme Järvi has a fruitful history of recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. That factor, combined with the RSNO’s immersion in French music under its most recent artistic director, Stéphane Denève, lends these performances a thoroughly confident air in aspects of style. The playing is full of character, the music’s detail clearly elucidated, the images of Saint-Saëns’s imagination firmly and atmospherically fixed. Even the hint of vulgarity in the ‘Danse bacchanale’ from Samson et Dalila, one of the several other works making up a substantial programme, has a secure raison d’être.

If some of the symphonic poems themselves maintain only a tenuous hold on the regular repertoire, a few of these additional pieces are even less often resurrected. The Marche du couronnement, composed for and performed at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, fulfils its festive function, Saint-Saëns’s credentials for writing it lying in the fact that he had composed an opera on Henry VIII and had tickled the ear of Queen Victoria with a 16th-century English tune woven into its fabric and recycled in this march. The ‘Marche militaire française’ from the Suite algérienne is altogether more airy and light-hearted, the theme towards the end of the early (1863) overture Spartacus capping music of Weber-like exuberance but with fingerprints of SaintSaëns’s own. All in all this is a disc with plenty to discover and enjoy.

© 2012 Gramophone

MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Symphony No. 3 / Cross Lane Fair (BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)
(Naxos: 8.572350)

MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Symphony No. 3 / Cross Lane Fair (BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies) It is Davies at his most uncompromisingly brooding: intensity ingrained into every bar, a new kind of symphonic logic pursued with frightening relentlessness. For a listener who is, as Susan Sontag called herself, “a zealot of seriousness”, the rewards are deep and stirring.

© 2012 The Sunday Times, London

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