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A voice for new music

October 27, 2002|Daniel Cariaga; Josef Woodard; Chris Pasles; Richard S. Ginell

Glass: "Itaipu," Salonen: "Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jaderlund," Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, conductor ***, RCM

Contemporary choral music needs love -- an end to which this recording contributes amply. Grant Gershon leads his formidable group in two vital, recent entries in the field, each of which addresses a post-serial musical landscape in distinct ways.

Philip Glass' 1989 work paying tribute to the epic hydroelectric dam bordering Brazil and Paraguay relies on his coolly heroic if overly familiar harmonic language, spiked by mercurial dissonances in the instrumental periphery. Esa-Pekka Salonen's evocative "Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jaderlund," written during his sabbatical from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2000 and premiered by the L.A. Master Chorale last March, manages a balance of forces both ethereal and impelling. Gershon and the ensemble effectively bring life to the swirling sensuality of the Swedish poet's "Deep in the room" and "Kiss my mouth."

This is work ideally suited to the essential, mysterious realm of choral music.

-- Josef Woodard

Placido Domingo broadly defines the word 'sacred'

"Sacred Songs" Placido Domingo, Placido Domingo, tenor; Sissel, vocalist; Paolo Rustichelli, piano, guitar and synthesizers; Luisa Domingo, harp; Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, Marcello Viotti, conductor, **, Deutsche Grammophon

If you think "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is a sacred song, you may accept all the contents of this album of miscellany enthusiastically. Otherwise, call it Kyrie Lite. Granted, the veteran tenor's singing is handsome and mellifluous, the pops accompaniments -- virtually everything here is arranged or overarranged for maximum accessibility -- pleasant. There are even three "Ave Marias," including a nice one by P.D. Jr. Mostly, however, with legit but secular items such as Bach's "Bist du bei mir" and Wagner's "Der Engel," this is just another hodgepodge.

--Daniel Cariaga

Still-relevant Reichians

Steve Reich: "Tehillim" and "Desert Music", Alarm Will Sound; Ossia; Alan Pierson, conductor, ***, Cantaloupe

These potent 1980s-vintage works, fine examples of Steve Reich's imaginative text-setting skills, originally came out in the age of the LP. Heard back to back on one disc, in fresh and energetic new performances by two East Coast new music groups, they present complementary but also distinct angles on the composer's aesthetic. It sounds as current and relevant as ever.

Reich blended otherworldly voices, percussion and instrumental forces in creating the unique canvas for "Tehillim," based on Psalms. William Carlos Williams' beguiling poem "Desert Music" gets its musical due in Reich's rhythmically nuanced setting, written in 1984 and revised in this leaner, meaner chamber version in 2001. At once propulsive and vaporous, the work defies any simple Minimalist categorization. On this recording, the final movement of "Desert Music" leaves you a bit breathless, with its rattling culmination of energies that have been slowly and craftily marshaled throughout, and then its sighing, enigmatic denouement.

--Josef Woodard

Choral works past and present

"In Excelsis" Choir of New College, Oxford; Edward Higginbottom, conductor, *** 1/2, Erato

This disc juxtaposes glorious 16th century English choral polyphonic works with equally worthy contemporary church pieces, as well as less deeply affecting secular choruses. No one has to make a case for Thomas Tallis or the first John Taverner (1490-1545), but some of their contemporaries deserve to be better known. Nicholas Ludford (1490-1557), for instance, wrote a sumptuous "Ave cujus conceptio."

Even so, the contemporaries dazzle. The John Taverner born in 1944 penned an ecstatic "Hymn to the Mother of God," as well as two powerful settings of poems by William Blake ("The Lamb" and "The Tyger"). Giles Swayne wrote a rhythm-popping Magnificat (1982) that takes flight from African responsive chant. The men and boys Choir of New College, Oxford, sing lovingly under the direction of Edward Higginbottom.

--Chris Pasles

Rip-roaring Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky: "Souvenir de Florence," Dvorak: Sextet in A, Sarah Chang, Bernhard Hartog, violins; Wolfram Christ, Tanja Christ, violas; Georg Faust, Olaf Maninger, cellos, ***, EMI Classics

The classical shelves are almost evenly split between versions of "Souvenir de Florence" for string orchestra and the original grouping for sextet as heard here. Either way, it's a winningly exuberant piece that for all of its swinging, surging, memorable tunes has received strangely lukewarm press over the years.

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