WEANING ourselves slowly from the Christmas season, here are some very worthwhile CDs that have at least a vestigial spiritual or biblical connection with Christmas.
Christmas and "Dies Natalis" by English composer Gerald Finzi share a common concern with the innocence of a newborn child. In Finzi's case, his solo cantata for high voice and strings is set to words of the metaphysical Anglican priest Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) which rhapsodizes over what one writer calls Tra-herne's "unsullied vision of the world as perceived by a newborn child." Though Traherne's words make no reference to the Christ Child, the soft, gentle innocence of both his texts and Finzi's music make a palpable spiritual bond with the idea of the Nativity.
"Dies Natalis" is the title work on a new CD by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley, with soprano Rebecca Evans as the ideally matched, serenely beautiful soloist. In the form of an orchestral prelude and four movements for voice and strings, this is music of incomparable poise and rapturous pastoral reflection, with the final two songs, a spiritually ecstatic setting to "The Wonder" and a gently wandering chorale to "The Salutation," radiating a wonderfully summary feeling.
The CD employs other excellent soloists in settings of Hardy's "When I Set Out for Lyonesse," the post-World War II "A Farewell to Arms," "Two Sonnets" by Milton, a beautiful "Interlude" for oboe and strings, and another song cycle to Shakespeare called "Let Us Garlands Bring" that includes ravishing settings of such familiar texts as "Come Away Death," "Who Is Silvia?" and "O Mistress Mine." If you don't know Finzi's work, this is the place to start. Rating: **** 1/2 .
One of the most beautiful yet sadly neglected (especially in North America) of Vaughan Williams' works is his 1931 "masque for dancing" called "Job." The link with Christmas is biblical though more distant, through the Old Testament. In nine scenes and an epilogue, it is based on Blake's "Illustrations for the Book of Job" and incorporates many of the most inspired of the composer's pastoral sound paintings, perhaps his most colorful, rich and heaven-storming use of brass, and in evoking Satan some strikingly violent dissonance that foreshadows his extraordinarily visionary and harsh 1936 Symphony in F minor.
Listen also to Vaughan Williams' evocative use of the saxophone to suggest the fawning hypocrisy of Satan's "comforters." Even though it's written for dance, the inherent drama of Job's tribulations and of Vaughan Williams' tightly woven music make it gripping as an independent symphonic poem.
The new CD by the English Northern Philharmonia conducted by David Lloyd-Jones brings this unique score to life with compelling vividness and a radiant palette of color. It may lack an edge of the richness brought to the music in several recordings by its dedicatee and most ardent early champion, Sir Adrian Boult, but the Lloyd-Jones performance gives an excellent account of this wonderful score and the Naxos budget price moves it into the "best buy" category. Rating: ****.
Two wholly secular releases complete our post-Christmas survey.
There is a strong local connection in "The Romance and Rhapsody of Max Bruch." The orchestra is conducted by Arie Lipsky, resident conductor and principal cellist of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the Fleur de Son label itself is run by Michael Andriaccio and Joanne Castellani, Buffalo duo-guitarists and all-around enterprising musicians.
Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 is, of course, in every fiddler's repertoire. But his Concerto No. 2 has never quite made it. Israelievitch, Lipsky and the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra of Lithuania forget the virtuoso stuff and play this deceptively winning work for its intimacy and quiet inner reflection, which manage to remain the dominant message of the concerto, even in the "Allegro Molto" Finale.
The rapport of these artists is on the same high level in the Romance in A minor, Op. 42, and Adagio Appassionato, Op. 57. These two superbly expressive works fall into that unfortunate limbo of works for solo instrument and orchestra that are too short (10 minutes) to find currency on concert programs simply because touring soloists would rather play a full-length concerto, and very few of them are willing throw in another work for the same fee.
There are three other recordings of the 1911 Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra, Op. 88, currently in the Schwann/Opus Catalog that I haven't heard, but it's doubtful they can be any better than the performance offered here by Lipsky, violist Donatus Katkus and clarinetist Guy Chadash.
The work itself is genial, lyrical and quite conversational, with three movements of progressively more animated character, and seemingly a deeply personal statement by a composer late in life (age 73) and more concerned with music that speaks from the soul than making a splashy impression. This CD offers a finely balanced program and excellent performances. Rating: ****.
A highlight of the annual June in Buffalo Festival at UB this year was a performance of Donald Erb's 1995 Sonata for Solo Harp by Yolanda Kondonassis, which was so compelling that The Buffalo News' review urged that it be recorded ASAP. This has been done, and it's included in a CD called "Donald Erb: Sunlit Peaks and Valleys" which should be of great interest to listeners with an adventurous ear.
The Sonata for Solo Harp retains its great appeal on repeat hearings, with conventional seeping glissando phrases, arpeggiated runs and probing introspective melodic ideas joined by extended techniques such as pummeling the strings with the palms of the hands, humming a kind of harmonic cantus firmus beneath the harp line, and the use of a plectrum for special effects, but all without prostituting the nature of the harp.
This is a very imaginative work, but so are the companion pieces on the CD, all written within the past four years and revealing a very gratifying maturity that has come over Erb's creative efforts. Particularly interesting are "Remembrances" for two trumpets, the Sonata for Solo Violin and the title piece, "Sunlit Peaks and Valleys," played by the Verdehr Trio, which appeared on the UB Visiting Artist Series in 1991. Rating: ****.
FINZI Dies Natalis, When I Set Out for Lyonesse, Interlude, Farewell to Arms, Two Sonnets, Let Us Garlands Bring; vocalists Rebecca Evans, Toby Spence and Michael George, oboist Nicholas Daniel; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley (Conifer 51285)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Job, a Masque for Dancing, English Northern Philharmonia conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos 8.553955)
THE ROMANCE AND RHAPSODY OF MAX BRUCH Violin Concerto No. 2, Romance, Adagio Appassionato, Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra; violinist Jacques Isrealievitch, clarinetist Guy Chadash, violist Donatus Katkus; St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra of Lithuanis conducted by Arie Lipsky (Fleur de Son 57925)
DONALD ERB -- SUNLIT PEAKS AND DARK VALLEYS Remembrances, Sonata for Solo Violin, Sonata for Solo Harp, Changes; harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, violinist Gregory Fulkerson, Verdehr Trio, other artists (New World 80537)