The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra presents two organ concerts this week – this season’s final organ recital TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. and this season’s final FREE community hymn sing on Saturday at 11 a.m.

March 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post about two performances, put on by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in Overture Hall this week. The first is the season’s final organ recital and the second is the  season’s final hymn sing:

ORGAN RECITAL

The Madison Symphony Orchestra welcomes acclaimed organist Erik Wm. Suter in recital, TONIGHT, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.

Suter will perform works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Duruflé and William Bolcom, among others. For the specific works on the program, go to: http://madisonsymphony.org/suter

A native of Chicago, Suter (below) enjoys an international career from Tokyo to Toronto and from Massachusetts to Madison. For 10 years he served as organist at the Washington National Cathedral.

Additionally, he has won five first place awards in numerous organ competitions around the world.

His performances of the complete organ works of Maurice Duruflé have garnered high praise: “Suter’s impeccable organ playing and musicianship were certainly the highlight of the evening.” (You can sample Suter’s Duruflé project, performed at the National Cathedral, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

HYMN SING

On Saturday, March 11, at 11 a.m., the MSO invites the entire community to sing together with the Overture Concert Organ at a free Hymn Sing in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.

All ages are welcome and no registration or tickets are required.

The Hymn Sing will feature classic hymns and spirituals such as Rock of Ages, Were You There, and I Know That My Redeemer Lives as well as solo organ works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Douglas Bristol and Louis Vierne.

Gary Lewis (below), organist at Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison, will lead the hymn singing, which will last approximately one hour.

TICKETS

General Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/suter, (608) 258-4141 or the Overture Center Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

The Erik Wm. Suter performance is sponsored by Mike and Beth Hamerlik.

Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) commissioned the Overture Concert Organ, which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.


Classical music: Clocks in Motion and Transient Canvas perform new music for winds and percussion this Wednesday night. Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert of Mozart, Beethoven and Webern on Saturday night.

November 3, 2015
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ALERT: The Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the UW-Madison School of Music, will give a FREE concert this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features: the String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1799-1800) by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) for String Quartet (1905) by Anton Webern; and the String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428 (1783) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following word from Clocks in Motion:

Clocks in Motion (below), Madison’s premier new music ensemble, welcomes the renowned bass clarinet and marimba duo Transient Canvas to Madison for a collaborative performance of new sounds, new instruments, and new music.

Clocks in Motion Group Collage Spring 2015

Featuring a world premiere by Italian-American modernist composer Filippo Santoro, as well as rarely heard works by Daniel T. Lewis, Matthew Welch, and Franco Donatoni, this concert offers a singular chance to experience the cutting edge of new music.

The performance is this Wednesday night, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m. in the DeLuca Forum (below bottom) of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (below top), across from the Union South at 330 North Orchard Street.

WID_extr11_1570

SEW Forum room

It will feature Transient Canvas (below), which consists of the “dazzling” (Boston Globe) clarinetist Amy Advocat and the “expert and vivid” (Boston Musical Intelligencer) marimbist Matthew Sharrock performing thrilling repertoire commissioned for their distinctive instrumentation, as well as larger works in partnership with Clocks in Motion.

Transient Canvas close up

Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 the day of the show; $5 with a student ID. PURCHASE TICKETS

Advance tickets are available at https://www.artful.ly/store/events/7534

Praised by the Boston Globe as “superb,” Transient Canvas has been blazing its own trail in the world of contemporary music since 2011. In four years, they have premiered over 40 new works, essentially creating an entirely new repertoire for their unique instrumentation. Fearless in their programming and hungry for new collaborations, TC actively seeks out new composers who will stretch their instrumentation to its limits. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom)

Learn more about Transient Canvas at http://www.transientcanvas.com/

Transient canvas performing

Hailed as “nothing short of remarkable” (ClevelandClassical.com), Clocks in Motion is a group that performs new music, builds its own instruments, and breaks down the boundaries of the traditional concert program. The group Clocks in Motion consistently performs groundbreaking concerts involving performance art, theater, and computer technology.

Featuring world premieres alongside rarely performed classic works, the ensemble strives to create a new canon of percussion repertoire.

clocks in motion in concert

Clocks in Motion works passionately to educate young audiences through master classes, residencies, presentations, and school assemblies. The ensemble’s unique skill sets and specialties contain an impressive mix of rock, jazz, contemporary classical, orchestral, marching, and world styles.

Clocks in Motion has served as resident performers and educators at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Casper College, the University of Michigan, Baldwin-Wallace University, VIBES Fine and Performing Arts, Traverse City West High School, Traverse City East Middle School, Rhapsody Arts Center, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Formed in 2011, Clocks in Motion began as an extension of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Graduate Percussion Group, and now serves as an affiliate ensemble of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

 


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