Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Brockes-Passion: Comparing Five Composers

Barthold Heinrich Brockes' 1712 devotional "re-imagining" of the passion story was set by many composers during the High-Baroque period including Handel, Telemann, and Keiser. Several of those settings are decided masterpieces: listening to a handful of them in fairly recent recordings, one is struck by the broad diversity of style, scale and mood inspired by the text. Comparison raises questions, too, about the way some of these composers felt free to rearrange the order or eschew whole sections of text altogether.  

Here is a brief overview of five different settings, all recorded since 1998.

Ramée RAM 1303 (2-disc set) (2014)
Reinhard Keiser: Brockes Passion
Vox Luminis
Les Muffatti
Peter Van Heyghen

Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) was a major figure in the innovation and development of German opera during the Baroque period. His hauntingly beautiful setting of the Brockes Passion is a true hidden gem of the period, earning the admiration of no less than J.S. Bach, who performed the work at Leipzig shortly after his appointment there. This treasureable recording from 2014 captures the exquisite lyricism and heart-melting pathos of Keiser's setting with world-class singing and beautiful sound. Wholeheartedly recommended!

Carus 83.428 (2-disc set) (2010)
George Frederick Handel: Brockes Passion
Cologne Chamber Choir
Collegium Cartusianum
Peter Neumann

Handel's setting of the Brockes Passion is very fine indeed, with moments of true beauty. The very-Lutheran text is set in a grandly Italian style. This is probably the closest Handel ever came to Bach in terms of structure, tone, and temperament--one may, at times, recognize a similar approach to the use of dramatic music in the service of liturgy. Another lovely recording from the German Carus label. Highly recommended.

Harmonia-Mundi HMC 902013.14 (2-disc set) (2009)
Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes Passion
RIAS Chamber Choir
Academie für Alte Musik, Berlin
René Jacobs

Jacobs makes the best possible case for Telemann's setting, which strikes one as rather short on imagination and thematic allure. The drama is not very subtle here, though the music is pretty enough. Fine performances by a dedicated group of soloists with the always-superb RIAS Choir and Berlin Academy for Early Music. Recommended.

Naxos 8.570326 (2008)
Johann Friederich Fasch: Passio Jesu Christi (Brockes Passion)
Overture (Suite) in d minor
Schola Cantorum Budapestiensis
Capella Savaria Baroque Orchestra
Mary Térey-Smith

J.S. Bach's immediate predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Friederich Fasch is best known today for his numerous instrumental works including concerti and suites--one of which (the famous Overture in d minor) takes up nearly a quarter of this disc. As for his abbreviated setting of the Brockes Passion, Fasch was decidedly out of his depth. Though the performing ensemble and soloists are adequate, the music itself lacks conviction or serious dramatic impact. Telling, especially, are the chorale settings, harmonizations about as bare-boned and uninventive as its possible to imagine, especially after a lifetime of exposure to the settings of Bach. Of interest to complete-ists and the insatiably curious; one can find decent recordings of the Overture elsewhere.

CPO 999 560-2 (2-disc set) (1998)
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Brockes Passion
Michaelstein Chamber Choir
Telemann Chamber Orchestra
Ludger Rémy

Stölzel's marvelously subtle 1725 setting is an intimately-scaled masterpiece, worthy to stand alongside Keiser and Handel. To be sure, this isn't Bach, nor should one expect the same vast expressive pallet or plangent profundity. Stölzel's music is simpler, more overtly workmanlike, and down to earth, set on a much narrower, more intimate stage. Yet, taken for what it is, this Brockes Passion works very well indeed, both on a devotional and purely musical level. Ludger Rémy's immediately-lovable reading is convincing in every way, gorgeously sung and played, impeccably paced, bewitchingly lyrical, and unfailingly expressive. The German CPO label here offers its typically first-rate recorded sound. Highly recommended!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sir Malcolm Arnold: Two Recent Box Sets

Chandos CHAN 10853(4) X (4-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: Complete Symphonies (1-9)
Richard Hickox/London SO (1-6)
Rulan Gamba/BBC PO (7, 8, 9)

Sony 8875181702 (11-CD box set) (2016 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings
Vernon Handley/Royal PO (Symphonies #s 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Royal Liverpool PO (Symphonies #s 3-4)/ Bournemoth SO (Symphony #9)
Mark Stephenson/London Musici (concertos)
Elgar Howarth/Sir Malcolm Arnold/Grimthorpe Colliery (Brass) Band

Sony's 2016 compilation of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold features consistently fine interpretations in excellent sound at an irresistible bargain price, Part of Sony's Masters series, this no-frills 11-disc box comprises recordings made for the Conifer label between 1989 and 1997. As with all other entries in the series, each disc is discretely packaged in its own heavy cardboard sleeve with relevant performance information and recording dates printed on the back.


Symphonies #s 1 & 5

A Grand, Grand Overture; Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands)
Carnival of Animals; Symphony #2

Symphonies #s 3 & 4

Symphony #6
Fantasy on a Theme of John Field
Sweeney Todd; Tam O'Shanter Overture

Symphonies #s 7 & 8

Concertino for Oboe & Strings; Fantasy for Oboe;
Symphony #9

Beckus the Dandipratt; Water Music;
Anniversary Overture; Philharmonic Concerto;
Peterloo Overture; A Flourish for Orchestra;
Symphony for Strings

Serenade for Small Orchestra; Larch Trees;
Concerto for Viola & Chamber Orchestra;
Concerto for 28 Players

Concerto for 2 Violins & String Orchestra
Concerto for Clarinet & Strings #1
Concerto for Flute & Strings #1
Concerto for Horn & Strings #2

Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Horn & Orchestra #1
Concerto for Flute & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Piano Duet & Strings

Arnold on Brass
4 Scottish Dances; Little Suites for Brass Bands #s 1 & 2
English Dances Sets 1 & 2; Fantasy for Brass Band;
4 Cornish Dances; The Padstow Lifeboat

It would be hard to imagine anything better than Vernon Handley's sparkling readings of the symphonies--nice as the Hickox performances for Chandos are. Handley gets to the lyric heart of the music, bringing drive and drama to the scores, beside which the competition seems to be standing still. This is especially evident in the earlier symphonies, but even in the later works, where, occasionally, the composer seemed to emphasize gesture over theme, Handley's unfailing musicality shines through. The Chandos album, while featuring the label's characteristically good sound throughout, lacks the consistent warmth or "presence" of the Conifer recordings. Details, so subtly underscored in Handleys readings, seem lost, especially in Gamba's performances of the final three works.

The symphonies alone would be enough to recommend the Sony box, but the inclusion of numerous concertos, overtures and various concert works (often featuring the composer's wry sense of musical humor) makes this set nothing short of indispensable. Particularly impressive are the three discs of concertos engagingly performed by soloists with the London Musici under Mark Stephenson. Arnold comes off here as a kind of modern-day Vivaldi, hyper-prolific, diversely imaginative, and always entertaining. The final disc in the set features music for brass, including arrangements of the composer's popular sets of folk dances.

The Chandos compilation of the nine symphonies will be of interest to die-hard Arnold fans and those (like myself) interested in comparative listening. Hickox' recordings  of the first six works, made with the LSO were originally released in 1994 and 1995, while Gamba's readings of Symphonies 7, 8, and 9 with the BBC PO date from 2001. The set features reproductions of the original album covers on each sleeve, bur does not, in fact, include the Oboe Concerto on disc 4. Again, there's nothing "wrong" with any of the performances per se, and, as noted above, the sound is above average. If cost is one's sole consideration, the Sony set remains the better choice.