Review: Autumnal voices
New showcases of choral music and American art song
By Porter Anderson
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ATLANTA (CNN) -- As the light comes down, the autumn chill becomes more persistent, the afternoons are leaf-cushioned and quiet. Thoughts evolve into meditations. The real harvest is a taking stock, an inventory of the year and what we've done with it.
Three recently released CDs -- two choral and one solo -- give voice to the deepening mystery of the fall season.
'Baltic Voices 3'
The only downside of this invigorating, spirit-rustling CD from Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is that it's apparently the final entry in a series of distinctive, soul-bracing new music.
The first track, Vaclovas Augustinas' agile "The Stomping Bride," sets the tone for the frequently percussive modernity of much of this CD. Reminiscent of composer John Adams' clustering alto-tenor chimes under soaring sopranos (as in his "Harmonium"), this setting of a Lithuanian folksong is a perfect early-holidays jaunt.
And the comfort of that work helps ease the unnerving grace of wavering-vibrato lines in Kaija Saariaho's "Nights, farewells." This signal work leads you into the bravest abstractions of the CD. Menacing and imploring, the opening lyrics seize the stage: "In the air / light tears itself / from the ground / into darkness." In polyphonic moan and sigh, the ensemble ushers in the final sequence, icy with Balzac's elegiac adieu, "Granite, farewell, a flower you shall become."
By album's end, you're left on the slow walk of Henryk Gorecki's "5 Kurplan Songs," a relentless picture of gathering hope amid impending darkness: "There, the sycamore will shelter me / there, the storm will pass me by."
Most of us lump all liturgical plainsong into the easy but inaccurate basket of "Gregorian chant." And this CD is opened, in fact, by a musical telling of the life of Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604, the trope "Gregorius Praesu."
The point of this beautiful, informative album, though, is that today we've lost many distinctions that once created a robust ninth-century competition of styles -- the "Chant Wars" of Charlemagne's era.
The European ensembles Sequentia and Dialogos are brought together here on this CD released by Sony to explore what Dialogos' Katarina Livljanic terms "a mysterious link with our own roots."
Going so far as to pronounce Latin phrases differently according to the origin of each piece, the singers move from traditions of Gaul and Rome to Germanic and Frankish influences, and even chants from a time when Charlemagne was sabotaged by the very monks he sent out to lay down the plainsong law. His emissaries purposely varied their styles to undermine imperial unity.
To our ears, of course, much of it is just what Charlemagne demanded, the "pure water" of dutifully glistening music.
'A Song -- for Anything'
Few composers have captured a readily credible blend of European art-song tradition and American sensibility. Charles Ives (1875-1954) may have come closest when he wove scraps of Protestant hymn melodies into his fabric of dissonant, distracted harmonies.
This is the man who, in 1902, wrote a song called "Slugging a Vampire."
As sung here by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley with Julius Drake's accompaniment, the effect is hauntingly displayed. "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" the lyric keeps demanding, for example, in the 1914 "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven."
Hyperion's CD lavishes time and these artists' talent on several of the most elusive of Ives' efforts, including his eerie rumination on "Thoreau": "He grew in those seasons like corn in the night / Rapt in reverie on the Walden shore." And the sheer advance Ives had on musical form is nowhere more evident than in his 1897 "Memories: (A) Very Pleasant; (B) Rather Sad."
But the real kicker comes last, in the CD's title piece. "A Song -- for Anything" is Ives' 1892 mix of Psalm 51, a Yale song and a love poem to one Margarita.
This is music for a melting pot of a culture, and wry comfort to our own introspection as we work to make sense of a year that may seem as disjointed as Ives knew the American context to be.
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