The other two discs, Psalms and Stabat Mater, are part of the Paradisi Gloria series, begun in 2000 as a concert series of the Munich Radio Orchestra in cooperation with the catholic archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The goal of the series is to perform and record excellent 20th- century sacred choral works that have not enjoyed the benefit of many repeated hearings. The eight pieces chosen for inclusion on the two recordings cover a period of eight decades—from Ernest Bloch’s setting of the twenty second Psalm to Wolfgang Rihm’s Stabat Mater, which he composed at the close of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the musical styles represented go far to summing up the diversity of 20th-century musical language.
If one’s acquaintance with Haydn has been mostly through his symphonies, the music in his dozen Masses, composed over much of his creative life, may come as a delightful surprise to the listener. While Haydn transferred some of his orchestral techniques to the composition of some of his Masses, it would be a mistake to think of the latter as little choral symphonies, for they have lives of their own. Neither are they sacred operas even though the trappings of the opera aria are often present. One can argue that certain compositional practices turn the Masses into concert pieces and negate their use in the celebration of the Eucharist. In these Masses, for example, Haydn and Mozart both give the beginning words of the Gloria and Credo movements to the chorus, rather than reserving them for the celebrant as church rules dictated. As a result, these Masses—and others similar to them—may not have survived with their original intent intact—as musical enhancement to the celebration of the Eucharist—but they come down to us as splendid examples of choral writing.
The Neue Hofkapelle and the Orpheus Choir, both of Munich, have set a high standard for the performance of Haydn’s Missa Cellensis in this recording. The choral singing and the four soloists are uniformly excellent as is the playing of the Neue Hofkapelle, the whole crafted into a superb musical ensemble conducted by Gerd Guglhor. Much of the music and its performance unfold as a series of captivating dances: light and buoyant; exuberant and driving; graceful and elegant; rapturous and almost hypnotic. This is equally true of the presentations of chorus, soloists, and orchestra. The fugal movements and sections—more of them here than in any other Haydn Mass—are never ponderous academic exercises: this group invests them with the appropriate dignity when that is called for and with a rhythmic energy that has an inexorable drive to it that beautifully illustrates the sense of internal rhythm that is the major ingredient in the success of this performance. All in all, this is a sublime experience for the listener.
Mozart is represented here not only by the Mass in C, K. 257 but by five other shorter choral pieces as well, including the “old chestnut,” Ave verum corpus. Had this Mass, which bears the subtitle Credo Messe, been composed by anyone other than Mozart, it probably would have remained a historical curiosity. The Mozart name, of course, carries with it much weight, a weight disproportionate to the music of this Mass. Nevertheless, Mozart being Mozart, it is interesting to hear the relatively young composer in something other than the more mature Masses and Symphonies. The Credo Mass, so-called because of the many repetitions of the word “Credo” in that movement, is one of the few early Mozart Masses to go beyond the scope of the Missa brevis type. Its instrumentation of chorus, a quartet of soloists, two oboes, two trumpets, three trombones, and kettledrums lend it a festive air; its succinctness probably pleased the Archbishop, a man not always pleased with Mozart and one with whom the composer frequently crossed swords. The four soloists acquit themselves well with the tenor, however, brighter and more penetrating than his colleagues—a quality that is not always pleasing. The Laudate Dominum; Te Deum laudamus; and Alma Redemptoris, all composed before Mozart was in his mid- twenties, are all performed well. The very familiar Ave verum corpus that Mozart composed in the last year of his life, has become a staple item of church choirs, whose numbers are countless and whose abilities cover a wide range. To this listener the piece never loses its mystery and its freshness in spite of what some choirs do to it. Its hushed reverence and deceptive simplicity mark it as something that only a mature Mozart could have composed.
Klaus Knubben, conductor, the four soloists, the Limburger Domsingknaben, and the Gürzenich Kammerorchestra of Cologne have prepared a lovely recording of this music. Anyone buying this recording for Thomas Quasthoff’s performance on it, however, will be disappointed because his participation is limited to short segments in the Mass.
The Stabat Mater, a thirteenth-century devotional poem generally attributed to Jacopone da Todi,was the fifth and last sequence that the Roman Catholic Church allowed into the liturgy. A meditation on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion, this sequence is appointed to be sung on Friday in Passion Week and the on the third Sunday in September. The poignant words of Mary (“At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus at the last”) have inspired musical settings by most of the major composers in the history of music, including Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn,. Rossini, Verdi, Dvorak, and Stanford. Karol Szymanowski, Francis Poulenc, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Wolfgang Rihm are among the composers who expanded this list in the twentieth century, with Rihm’s setting straddling both twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The four settings of the Stabat Mater given here, present the listener with four different worlds of music, ranging from the poignancy of Poulenc’s musical language; to the folk-inspired setting of Szymanowski; to the musical eclecticism of Penderecki’s Stabat Mater (taken from his St. Luke Passion); to the sparse and tense musical speech of Wolfgang Rihm.
At the death in 1950 of his good friend, Christian Bèrard, Francis Poulenc was moved to compose “a prayer of intercession, and the heart-rending words of the Stabat Mater seemed to me completely right for confiding the soul of dear Bèrard to Our Lady of Rocamadour.” [Liner notes]. Wit and irony, trademarks of Poulenc’s early musical language, are largely missing from his works after he returned to the Catholic Church on the death of another friend in 1935. And so it is with this deeply moving setting of the Stabat Mater whose musical language is one largely of gentleness and poignant lyricism. The reflective mood of the piece is established at the outset with the exquisite Stabat mater dolorosa. (Très calme) Here, the orchestra intones a lovely ostinato pattern (a figure that Poulenc will depend upon often in his 1956 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites). One of the problems with such intense lyricism is the danger of its over-use. Sentiment can rapidly descend into sentimentality and bathos. Music needs both the lyrical and its dramatic contrast and Poulenc gives us those contrasts precisely at the right moments. One need only point to the juxtapositions of the “very calm” mood of the opening Stabat Mater and the following Cujus animam gementem section with its tempo marking of allegro, très violent, or to the fiery, rhythmically propulsive Quis est homo portion that separates the charming, light fourth movement, where Poulenc is at his most accessible, from the Vidit suum movement, with its lovely soprano solo.
It would be a pity if Poulenc’s Stabat Mater didn’t receive its proper due as the gem of choral writing that it is. It belongs in the standard repertoire of twentieth-century choral and orchestral music.
The Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks present a sterling performance of this piece. Their conductor, Marcello Viotti, brings impressive sensitivity to his interpretation of the score. The performance of soprano soloist, Georgina von Benza, is absolutely superb. She possesses a rich, warm voice that adds immeasurably to the success of this performance. Regrettably, the program notes give neither biographical information about any of the soloists nor a translation of the Stabat Mater text. In the first place, it would be nice to know something about these fine soloists, especially since their performances are uniformly excellent In the second place, the listener new to the Stabat Mater would, I think, find a translation helpful.
Karol Szymanowski’s setting of the Stabat Mater is in Polish—a Stala Matka. He wrote of the work: “this simple, immortal hymn has gained in immediacy for me, has become something, painted in familiar, plausible colours—in contrast to the archaic, line drawing of the original.” Composed in 1925 and 1926, the work, while clearly tonal, has a more contemporary sound than the Poulenc, composed a quarter of a century later. Its more contemporary sound owes much to the composer’s synthesis of compositional techniques from the west and his exploration of some of the styles of Polish folk music. As Stravinsky, Bartok, and Vaughan Williams created their own styles out of similar syntheses, so it is with Szymanowski. And, as with all of these composers, Szymanowski has absorbed the native materials so completely that it is difficult to point to specific pieces of folk music in the score. They are there and they flavor the composition in a way that marks it as Szymanowski’s.
From its almost ominous sounding introductory Stabat Mater dolorosa that unfolds over a pedal point, to the concluding movement in which the exquisite loveliness of Szymanowski’s music reflects “When my body dies, let my soul be granted the glory of Paradise. Amen,” the composer gives the listener a tremendous amount of variety of timbre. Szymanowski’s setting is often of chamber music proportions: women’s choir; baritone solo with French horn accompaniment; soprano solo over a woodwind backdrop; soprano solo with clarinet partner; unaccompanied women’s choir, joined soon by tenors and basses. Because these chamber-music like portions, those set for full orchestra (the Quis est homo and most of the Virgo virginum praeclara movements) become even more powerful than they otherwise might have sounded. The whole presents an impression of sheer loveliness juxtaposed against driving force.
Why this performance is in Latin, rather than the composer’s original Polish is not explained in the program notes. Again, the choristers acquit themselves nobly with an ensemble and balance that are enviable. Georgina von Benza’s soprano solos are marked by richness and warmth and intelligence. How fortunate Maestro Viotti is to have such a soloist for this recording. The solos of Fabio Previata, baritone, and of Birgit Remmert, alto, are equally convincing.
Krzysztof Penderecki, one of the leading Polish composers in the twentieth century, originally composed his Stabat Mater for three unaccompanied choirs. Three years later in 1965/66, he folded the work into his St. Luke Passion. Penderecki’s musical language in the Stabat Mater is an eclectic one, embracing such varieties of style as the opening (and subsequent) sections given over to Gregorian chant-like intonations of the words—ancient sounding music that becomes a partner with the antiquity of the text; the music acts like an anchor in the swirling sea of forthcoming pitches in tone clusters—pitches that unfold from a single unison pitch as a flower blossoms from a bud—and spoken portions, startling in the context of pitched sounds. Then, surprisingly, given the context in which it occurs, the whole ends with the choir singing a thunderous “Gloria” on an unadorned major triad.
The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, conducted here by the composer, beautifully negotiates all of the twists and turns of his treacherous score, turning what might otherwise have been a series of disparate sections into a cohesive whole, so that the juxtapositions of styles seem perfectly normal; even the conclusion on the major triad, while surprising, does not sound out of place.
To help celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart commissioned four composers to write new settings of the Passion. Wolfgang Rihm fulfilled his commission in 1999/2000 with his setting of part of the words of the Stabat Mater that he included in his Deus Passion—Passion Pieces After Luke. Rihm’s setting ends with words of both desolation and triumph: “For the sin of His own nation, saw Him hang in desolation, Till His spirit forth He sent.” Composed for two female singers and chamber ensemble, the music is often spare and appropriately mournful as Rihm. Helmut Rilling conducts the chamber group drawn from the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and two soloists, to whom credit is not given. Their voices are lovely and especially rich as they work their way through Rihm’s thorny passages.
Three musical traditions are represented in the four settings of various Psalms: the bloom of late Romanticism in Zemlinsky and Korngold’s scores; the thornier side of more contemporary musical language in Igor Markevitch’s setting; and the “Jewish coloring” of Ernest Bloch’s music—a sound characterized by late Romanticism without many of the trappings of twentieth-century music.
If Alexander Zemlinsky is known at all today, it is primarily as Arnold Schoenberg’s father-in-law. During his lifetime, however, he was a noted conductor and composer, greatly revered by the Viennese musical world at the beginning of the twentieth century and a considerable influence on composers coming of age in the first decade of that century. Schoenberg and Alban Berg were only two of the many composers who admired Zemlinsky’s abilities as musician and teacher.
Zemlinsky composed this setting of Psalm 13 in 1935, but the political situation in Germany made it impossible for the work to be heard at that time. It was not until 1971, nearly three decades after the death of the composer, that Psalm 13 was first performed. Beginning with a highly chromatic and impassioned setting of the lamentation of the opening words, “How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?”, the music moves through an animated middle section with its undercurrent of urgency, to a triumphant and glorious rejoicing in the Lord’s salvation, accompanied by trumpet fanfare and bells. Stepping away for a moment of reflection, the music of affirmation then returns with “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” Here, all forces crescendo to a second choral and orchestral fanfare in a musical moment where Gustav Mahler’s presence is not far away.
Peter Ruzicka conducts the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester in this convincing performance. In the more grandiose moments of Psalm 13, a choir less musical than this one and under a less able conductor might easily be tempted to over-sing. That this is not the case here is a credit to the choristers as well as to conductor Ruzicka, who blends choir and orchestra into impressive ensembles by themselves and in concert with one another. Here is an intelligent, always musical, performance of a piece that should be heard more often than it is. Timidity dictates programming decisions too often. What a treat it would be if conductors were to include this Zemlinsky—music of obvious high quality—on a program rather than repeating the old choral warhorses so often.
Igor Markevitch’s Psaume—Tehillim draws its text from several Psalms, rather than being from a single Psalm. Composed in 1933 for soprano solo and orchestra, Psaume—Tehillim is marked by a sense of urgency for much of its course. This is true of each of the three sections into which the piece is divided. Beginning with a propulsive rhythmic movement, Stravinsky-like in its sound, the piece moves to a quiet middle section marked by declamatory singing, “regular” singing, and Sprechstimme, all of which are accompanied by a chamber-music ensemble. The third, and final, movement, marked Con fuoco is a long, impassioned movement of repeated orchestral outbursts and ostinati patterns, coupled with the singer’s own ostinati, sequenced, and repeated a number of times. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is close by. Having said that, however, the Stravinsky sound disappears in the last third of the movement, a section of absolute contrast to the rest of the movement. Here, the mood turns hypnotic with Markevitch’s vocal writing at its most lyrical. There is a reflective, introspective, fragile quality to the sound—quiet soprano solo with slender accompaniment, all ending with the soprano’s hushed “Amen,” followed by three plucked unison notes in the strings. The urgency has been replaced by resolution into what? Acceptance? Resignation? It is difficult to say, for no text is given and, without a score in front of one, it is difficult to know what exactly is going on. The program notes describe Psaume—Tehillim as a “musical summing-up expressing the contradictions of an intemperate way of life” [Liner notes]—of speaking to the opium addiction the composer had overcome. Those words, together with the urgent— and then reflective—sound of the music can lead the listener to all sorts of wild speculations about the piece.
Psaume—Tehillim is music marked by power, intensity, lyricism, and hypnotic-like utterance—music that demands a soprano soloist of considerable musical ability, intelligence, and versatility to interpret it convincingly. There is no question that Elena Prokina is an ideal performer of this music. Prokina handles the many “roles” required of her with authority. Peter Rundel is her very capable collaborator as conductor of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. It is a shame that Psaume—Tehillim will probably have few live performances because of its specialized character. A piano transcription of the orchestral parts, thereby increasing the possibility of live performance, would only be an inadequate substitution, for orchestral instruments are crucial in the unfolding of this piece. The persons who decided on the music to be included on the Paradisi Gloria series must be commended for including Psaume—Tehillim. It is absolutely first-rate music, here interpreted by a gifted soprano and sensitive orchestral accompaniment, all under the leadership of Peter Rundel.
My first response to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Passover Psalm, Op. 30, was one of awe at Korngold’s amazing abilities as a composer and orchestrator. Here is music of considerable drama, composed in 1941 at the height of Korngold’s career as a Hollywood film composer. This piece and a Prayer are Korngold’s only sacred works, both commissioned by Rabbi Jakob Sonderling, chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Los Angeles.
The orchestation of Passover Psalm is reminiscent of what one finds in much of Korngold’s music that he composed for Hollywood, beginning in the mid-1930s. All of the trappings are here—of piano and organ; harp glissandos; solo violin coming out of the orchestral fabric, cymbal crashes; lush writing for the French horn— techniques that he used repeatedly as one of the most successful composers of movie music. It all works. And yet, while Korngold’s Passover Psalm knocks one sideways on first hearing, little is discovered upon repeated hearings. Music of the highest order seems never to divulge all its secrets from the beginning; rather, it leaves something yet to be discovered with frequent hearings. This is not true of the Korngold. Perhaps part of the problem is the sacred text. Korngold’s movie scores succeed on one level because the music relies on untexted sound to reinforce dramatic movements. Korngold’s music as a servant of words, of sacred text, however, doesn’t seem convincing at rehearing. The music here can sound repetitive, formulaic, less than convincing—bordering, at times, on the trivial. Is it because Korngold’s passionate musical statements are at odds with the kind of passion expressed in the psalm?
Despite any reservations I have about the piece, it has a “goose-bumpy” conclusion that “works” even upon repeated hearings. As a composer of film scores and of concert pieces, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the arch- Romantic in an age when Romanticism in music was anachronistic. Be that as it may, Korngold came to Hollywood at precisely the moment when studios and movies needed a music “sound.” Korngold provided that “sound” in score after score. It was to his credit that he never “differentiated between my music for the films and that for the operas and concert pieces. Just as I do for the operatic stage, I try to give to the motion pictures dramatically melodious music, sonic development, and variation of the themes.” [David Raksin, 1995].
The Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, both conducted by Marcello Viotti, and Emily Magee, the soprano soloist recreate the Korngold with love and passion. Magee sings with an impressive spirit that matches the music—she is involved in the music. It is regrettable that the listener is left knowing nothing about Magee because biographical information is completely lacking for the soloists.
Composers seek to express themselves through their own style—in a sound that readily identifies them and their music. Sometimes that style will take on a nationalistic or regional tone, as in the music of Vaughan Williams or Ives or Copland. It is no less the case with Ernest Bloch, who was “intrigued by the Jewish soul, that mysterious, passionate, emotional soul whose palpable presence I feel throughout the Bible.” [Liner notes]. Bloch gave voice to a Jewish idiom in his music throughout his creative life, beginning especially in the musical settings of the Psalms that he made between 1912 and 1914. This “Jewish colouring” has little to do with the actual quotation of specific Jewish musical elements; in working with that material, Bloch has absorbed it so thoroughly that his own musical language is beyond quotation—it has become one with his sources. One need only point to the “Englishry” of Vaughan Williams or to the “American” sound of Copland for parallel examples.
Psalm 22, composed between September 1913 and April 1914, is for baritone and orchestra. Here, the psalmist’s words receive an impassioned musical setting that reflects the initial fear of being abandoned by God: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why are thou so far from helping me? I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
Notwithstanding what confronts him—“dogs [that] are round about me [and] a company of evildoers encircle me,”—the psalmist finds assurance and comfort in his belief in God and praises Him in the “midst of the congregation,” knowing that the Lord “has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted.” The drama in this psalm has the ring of an operatic scene. Here, however, there are no costumes, no scenery, no physical action. Bloch persuades the listener of the psalmist’s drama strictly through musical means—in the convincing, dramatic music he writes for the baritone soloist and the orchestral accompaniment .
A work of this length—more than eight and a half minutes long--and one that is limited in its variations of timbre depends upon a baritone soloist who can keep the listener’s attention and interest. Vincent Le Texler, who delivers an impassioned performance here, is not the baritone soloist who can, at this point in his career, meet that challenge. There are moments when one hears what Le Texler must have sounded like at an earlier age, when his vibrato was less prominent, and wishes that there were more such moments.
Marcello Viotti conducts the München Rundfunkorchester in this performance, recorded live in June, 2003 in the Herz-Jesu-Kirche in Munich.
The München Rundfunkorchester, its principal conductor Marcello Viotti, and the archdiocese of Munich and Freising are to be commended for their vision in supporting and performing twentieth-century sacred music, performing it so very well, and for presenting the listener with such fine recordings of these performances. It is easy to carp about the lack of biographical information or the absence of translations. Those are decidedly minor points that do not detract from the value of what are, in most cases, excellent performances of neglected sacred choral treasures.
Saint Mary’s College
Notre Dame, Indiana