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.

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Classical music: What is your favorite Easter music? There is so much to choose from. Here are two samplers.

March 27, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Easter Sunday, 2016.

Easter Sunday

You don’t have to be a believer to know that the events of Easter have inspired great classical music, especially in the Baroque era but also in the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras.

Easter lily

Of course, there is the well-known and much-loved oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, who wrote it for Easter, not Christmas as is so often assumed because of when it is usually performed. (NOTE: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform “Messiah,” with period instruments and historically informed performance practices, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Friday and Sunday, April 8 and 10.)

There is a lot of instrumental music, including the gloriously brilliant brass music by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and the darker Rosary sonatas for violin by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and the “Lamentation” Symphony, with its sampling of familiar tunes and intended to be performed on Good Friday, by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Heinrich Biber

Easter music cuts across all kinds of nationalities, cultures and even religious traditions: Italian, German, English, Scottish, American, Russian, French and Austrian.

But the occasion — the most central event of Christianity — is really celebrated by the huge amount of choral music combined with orchestral music – perhaps because the total effect is so overwhelming and so emotional — that follows and celebrates Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and then ultimately to Easter and the Resurrection from death of Jesus Christ.

For The Ear, the pinnacle is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), especially his cantatas, oratorios and passions.

Bach1

But today The Ear wants to give you a sampler of 16 pieces of great Easter music, complete with audiovisual clips.

Here is one listing that features music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Tallis, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Gustav Mahler, Francis Poulenc and James MacMillan:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/six-best-pieces-classical-music-easter

And here is another listing that features music by Antonio Vivaldi, Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” (rather than his “St. Matthew Passion” or “St. John Passion”) and “The Resurrection” oratorio (other than “Messiah”) by Handel.

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/04/ten-classical-music-pieces-for-easter.html

Curiously, no list mentions the gorgeous and haunting “Miserere” (below) by Gregorio Allegri. It was traditionally performed in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on the Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, but was kept a closely guarded secret. Publishing it was forbidden. Then a 12-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it and copied it down from memory.

Finally, The Ear offers his two favorite pieces of Easter music that never fail to move him. They are the passion chorale and final chorus from the “St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach:

What piece of music is your Easter favorite?

Do you have a different one to suggest that you can leave in the COMMENT section, perhaps with a link to a YouTube video?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Which one of five trains will you ride into the upcoming super-wreck on this Sunday afternoon?

September 25, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There are “train wrecks,” as the Wise Critic likes to call competing or conflicting music events.

And then there are TRAIN WRECKS!!!!!!!!!

Take the afternoon of this upcoming Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014.

The best The Ear can figure, you have a choice of five trains to ride into the wreck, possibly two if you plan really carefully and everything — including the length of concerts, transportation time and the availability of parking —  falls into place.

There are just too many events and too few weekdays to do separate blog posts on all of them. Besides, it will probably be helpful for scheduling –- if discouraging –- to see them all listed together.

A-l-l-l-l aboard:

Here, in timetable order, we go:

PRO ARTE STRING QUARTET

The Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in photo by Rick Langer), which is wrapping up its centennial anniversary and six centennial commissions with a gala FREE world premiere concert and dessert reception at the Wisconsin Union Theater on this Friday night at 8 p.m., will repeat the program in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in the Brittingham Gallery No. 3 (below middle).  It will be streamed live by Audio for the Arts. Go to www.chazen.wisc.edu on the day of the concert for a link.

The program includes the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet “Howl” (based on the Beat poem by Allen Ginsberg) by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below bottom) by as well as String Quartet No. 2 in A Major (1824) by Spanish composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga and the gorgeous Clarinet Quintet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here is a link: http://proartequartet.org

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

SALProArteMay2010

Pierre Jalbert

ANCORA STRING QUARTET

Originally scheduled for Friday, Sept. 26, the Ancora Quartet (below top, in a photo by Barry Lewis), with guest violinist Wes Luke (below bottom, in a photo by Barry Lewis) filling in for Leanne League. The three regular quartet members are,  from left, violinist Robin Ryan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

They will instead perform the Ancora’s opening concert of the season on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society where the quartet has been artists-in-residence. The program includes the “Sun” Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn; the one-movement Quartet for Strings by Amy Beach, which uses Inuit tunes; and the final String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, composed by Felix Mendelssohn in honor of the death of his beloved sister Fanny. A champagne reception is included. Tickets at the door are $15; $12 for seniors; and $6 for children under 12.

Other performances of this program will take place on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Eaton Chapel on the Beloit College campus, and on Sunday, Oct. 26, at 4 p.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fort Atkinson. In addition, the quartet has added the following dates: Monday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. at Oakwood Village West on Madison’s far west side at 6902 Mineral point Road, with FREE admission, followed by a Meet & Greet with the musicians; and on Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Loras College Visitation Center: Gallagher Hall, in Dubuque, Iowa.

http://ancoraquartet.com

Ancora 2014 2 Marika, Benjamin, Robin

Wes Color CR Barry Lewis

UW SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND SOPRANO ELIZABETH HAGEDORN

At 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in photo by John W. Barker) with guest UW-Madison professor soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below middle) and conductor James Smith (below bottom) will perform a FREE concert.

The program includes the “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites) music (the first draft of the First Movement from the Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”; and the “Rueckert Lieder,” both by Gustav Mahler; and also the Symphony No. 1 “Spring” by Robert Schumann.

UW Symphony Orchestra 2013 CR John W. Barker

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

EDGEWOOD COLLEGE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

At 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, at Edgewood College, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra (below top, in an old poster), conducted by Blake Walter (below bottom, in a photo by John Maniaci), will perform the “Ojai Festival Overture” by Peter Maxwell Davies, “Historic Scenes,” Op. 66, by Jean Sibelius and Symphony No. 53 in D Major “Imperiale” by Franz Joseph Haydn. Tickers are $5 at the door, free with an Edgewood College ID.

Edgewood Chamber Orchestra poster Sept 12

blake walter john maniaci

SOPRANO CHELSEA MORRIS AND FORTEPIANIST TREVOR STEPHENSON

At 3 p.m. in Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street, there will be a voice concert and CD-release party with soprano Chelsea Morris  and fortepianist Trevor Stephenson (both are below), the founder and leader of the Madison Bach Musicians, to celebrate the release of their new CD of songs by Mozart, Haydn and Franz Schubert. This past summer, Morris won top spot in the second annual Handel Aria Competition during the Madison Early Music Festival.

Trevor Stephenson will bring his 5-octave, 18th-century German fortepiano to accompany Ms. Morris and he also will play solo fortepiano works by Mozart and Beethoven.

He will give a brief talk about the Classical style and discuss how the fortepiano creates a thrilling sense of theatrical immediacy in the music of the 18th-century masters. 
Selections on the concert from Morris and Stephenson’s new CD: Songs by Mozart, Haydn & Schubert. A CD autograph signing will be held after the concert.

http://madisonbachmusicians.org

Chelsea, Trevor CD cover shot

OVERTURE CENTER ANNIVERSARY

At 3:30 p.m. in the Overture Center for the Arts, “American Kaleidoscope,” the second performance of a multi-performing arts celebration of the Overture Center’s 10th anniversary, will take place, continuing from the all-day festival on Saturday.

All the resident performing arts companies — including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber  Orchestra, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society — will do a second performance (the first is Saturday night). Here is a link:

http://www.overturecenter.org/about/news/1016-you—ve-never-seen-a-concert-like-this-sep-12-2014

OvertureExteior-DelBrown_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85

 


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