Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gottfried August Homilius: A Basic Discography

Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785) was a gifted pupil of J.S. Bach, and long-time kappelmeister at the Kreuz- and Frauen- kirches in Dresden. As with so many of his contemporaries, including several of Bach's own sons, Homilius has fallen through the stylistic cracks of  history; born a bit too early to be considered a full-blown Classicist, nor a textbook example of the Gallant, yet too late to be comfortably included in the waning Baroque school. Thus, his music is often eclectic, reflecting many sometimes-conflicting influences, from Bach and Handel to Haydn and the early Mannheim school. Nonetheless, the music is always accessibly melodious, graceful and charming (if occasionally approaching quaintness). In the last few years, the German Carus label has released an impressive series of recordings, making the best possible case for this unjustly neglected master.

For the curious listener, a good place to begin may be Carus 83-268, Music for the Frauenkirche Dresden, Jubilaumsedition. This attractive two-disc "Jubilee edition" from 2014 includes festive cantatas as well as the complete Christmas Oratorio, the final chorus from the St. John Passion, a number of interesting chorale preludes realized for trumpet solo and organ, and a charming sonata for oboe and continuo. I might have wished for the inclusion of several of the superb motets for a cappella choir, and possibly an excerpt or two from the marvelous St. Mark Passion, but those are readily available on albums of their own (see below), and well worth seeking out in any case.

1.Carus 83-268 (2-disc set) (2014)
Homilius Music for the Frauenkirche Dresden, Jubilaumsedition
various artists
(contains previously released material from #s 3, 6, 8, 12)

Brilliant Classics 94458 (2-disc set) (2015)
Homilius: Complete Organ Chorales
Felix Marangoni

Carus 83-236 (2010)
Homilius: Erwachet ihr Christen
(Chorale Preludes, Cantatas, Oboe Sonata)
Ludwig Güttler/Saxony Vocal Ensemble et al.

Carus 83-210 (2004)
Homilius: Sehet, Welch eine Liebe: Motets
Friederich Bernius/Stuttgart Chamber Choir

Carus 83-266 (2013)
Homilius: Habe deine lust an dem Hern: Motets II
Stefan Schuck/Serventes Berlin

Carus 83-183 (2005)
Homilius: Cantatas I
Roderich Kreile/Dresden Kreutzchor/Dresden Baroque Orchestra

Carus 83-267 (2014)
Homilius: Warum toben die Heiden (Cantatas)
Reiner Johannes Homburg/Handel's Company

8. Carus 83-235 (2008)
Dresden Frauenkirche
Homilius: Christmas Oratorio: Die Freude der Hirten uber die Geburt Jesu
Jacobi: Der Himmel steht unds wieder offen (cantata)
Ludwig Güttler/Virtuosi Saxoniae

Carus 83-262 (2007)
Homilius: Passion Cantata
Fritz Näf/Neue Düseldorfer Hofmusik/Basel Madrigalists

Berlin Classics BC 1046-2 (1993)
Homilius: St. Matthew Passion
Christopher Schoener/Academy for Ancient Music, Berlin/Capella Vocale Leverkusen

Carus 83-260 (2013)
Homilius: St. Mark Passion
Fritz Näf/Basel Madrigalists/Munich Baroque Orchestra et al.

Carus 83-261 (2007)
Homilius: St. John Passion
Roderich Kreile/Dresden Kreutzchor/Dresden Baroque Orchestra

Friday, July 17, 2015

Psalms from Schubert to Schoenberg

Christophorus CHR 77396 (2015)
Psalmus (T'hilim): Psalms in Christian Jewish Dialogue
(settings by Rheinberger, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Lewandowski, Rose, Mishory, Schoenberg)
Micahel Alber/Deutscher Kammerchor 

Released in May 2015 to coincide with celebrations marking the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the former West Germany (Bundesrepublik) and the state of Israel, this fine disc offers an interesting program of choral psalm settings in Hebrew and German by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic composers from the 19th to the 21st centuries, ranging stylistically from Schubert to Schoenberg,

The early to mid-19th century marked a period in the nascent Reform movement in which a growing spirit of ecumenicism and modernity brought great change to the musical life of the synagogue. Composers such as Solomon Sultzer (1804-1890), Jacques Halévy, Samuel Naumbourg, and  Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), introduced “contemporary” harmonies and choral technique, while, on occasion, notable non-Jewish composers were invited to contribute works to this expanding liturgical repertory.

Indeed, I was intrigued and delighted to note the inclusion of Schubert’s a cappella setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew (D 953). Though the work may well be considered something of a curiosity due to the unfamiliar (to most) language of the text, it is very much of a piece with Schubert’s typical, cheerfully lyrical, accessibly dramatic liturgical compositions for the Catholic church, and it’s wonderful to have this work in my collection at last.

Almost anyone who has ever attended a Friday-night Sabbath-eve service at a Reform temple has probably heard something by Louis Lewandowski; his L’cha dodi and Ma Tovu have been standards of the synagogue repertory for well over one-hundred-fifty years, and there’s little doubt as to why. Reading one of Lewandowski’s scores is like taking a crash course in 19th-century choral composition and style. The music is blithe, strikingly tuneful, and engaging, displaying the positive influences of Mendelssohn and Brahms at almost every turn. Along with the works of Solomon Sulzer, Lewandowski’s music has over the years assumed a kind of revered traditional “brought down from the mountain with Moses” status. Happily, this present disc includes Psalm settings by Lewandowski both in Hebrew and German. His marvelous Hebrew setting of Psalm 21 is particularly delightful and affecting.

Other highlights surely include the Drei Psalmen (Three Psalms) Op. 40 by the Catholic composer Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901), and the Psalm 92 by Alfred Rose (1955-1919), as well as Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 22, probably the most familiar piece in the program.

I was somewhat less impressed by the militantly dissonant, gimmick-heavy,  22-minute Wasserpsalm (Water Psalm) from 2014 by the Israeli pianist/composer Gilead Mishory (b. 1960). While the piece is certainly colorful notwithstanding its rather tired-sounding Schnitke-esque onomatopoeic vocal effects, and the performance, so far as I can surmise, adequately competent, it simply doesn’t seem to fit very well within the emotional or aural context of this program, and the creative choice to follow it up and close out the record with Schoenberg’s De Profundis feels, in retrospect, rather unfortunate. (Several subsequent hearings have done little to alter this opinion.)

Nonetheless, conductor Michael Alber has sculpted a polished, full, yet transparent sound ideal with his chorus. The singers seem well at ease with most of this repertory, shining especially in those tuneful, diatonically pleasing works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger, and Lewandowski. The recorded sound is superb.

A minor complaint: I must take issue with the Christophorus label’s packaging. The feather-light all-in-one booklet-style jewel-case makes no provision for the documentation insert, which floats around loose inside the cardboard wallet, thus making it liable to misplacement or loss. The use of ultra-light clear styrene plastic for the inner media tray does not bode well for long-term storage, as this type of material is prone to brittleness and hairline cracking, which are easily transferred to the disc surface over time.

Complaints aside, though, this disc will make a notable and worthy addition to any collection of choral liturgical music. Recommended.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Classic Americana

Albany (American Archives Series) TROY 256 (1997)
(Columbia mono recordings from 1953-1955)
Piston: Symphony #4
Harris: Symphony #7
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

Recorded in 1953 and 1954 respectively, the Schuman and Piston symphonies first appeared on Columbia ML 4992 (1955). The superb—definitive!—reading of Roy Harris’ Symphony #7 from 1955 was recorded that year, and issued on Columbia ML 5095 (1956), coupled with Serge Koussevitzky’s equally moving rendition of Harris’ Symphony ‘1933’ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. These recordings were available on LP well into the 1970s on the Columbia Special Products label, retaining the same catalog numbers with the exception of the CSP AML prefix.

One suspects that only so much could be done with the original masters. Columbia’s 50s-era recorded sound was often rather compressed and ‘boxy’, though with a sufficient hint of resonance to convey seriousness and weight. Albany’s 1996 re-masterings open up the aural spectrum somewhat, and offer what comes as close to a natural sound as possible.

Nonetheless, it’s great to have Ormandy’s magnificent reading of the Harris Seventh on CD. This is one of the composer’s finest, and most perplexingly neglected major works. Conceptually organic, reminiscent structurally of the Third, though perhaps, in its totality, a more serious statement, the Seventh is certainly more concentrated and consistent in mood and atmosphere--qualities that Ormandy no doubt discerned, and endeavored to convey in his performance. 

Ormandy was one of Harris’ most enthusiastic champions, recording the Third several times both for CBS and RCA. The conductor would go on to lead the world-premiere of Piston's Seventh Symphony in 1960.