It is easy to be misled by the vertical-shaped box for this
disc into thinking it is a DVD. It is not, and I have no idea
why this format was chosen, nor, more importantly, why these
two works are linked here. Apart from their religious subject
matter and having the same conductor they have little in common.
No matter; both are very much worth hearing as performed here.
Perhaps the link is their unusual scoring. The Pärt, said
to be a first recording, is for soprano and eight cellos. Although
the cellists here are apparently all students at the Bologna
Conservatory they play with real character and only occasional
signs of strain. The work is apparently dedicated to Barbara
Hendricks. Anna Maria Chiuri is very different singer - a dramatic
mezzo-soprano with a voice probably well suited to such operatic
roles as Dalila, Ortrud and Mistress Quickly, all of which are
in her repertoire. Somewhat to my surprise she sounds splendid
here, with a real feel for the narrative and forward motion
of the piece and only some occasional strain in her higher register.
The work is a telling in French of the story of Agathon, one
of the desert fathers, and his encounter with a leper who turns
out to be an angel, testing his practical faith. It is performed
here in an unexpectedly full-blooded way, giving free rein to
the drama. Whether this is what the composer expects I do not
know, but I was gripped throughout.
The longer work on the disc is Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio.
This was written when the composer was only 23 for small forces
consisting of five soloists, choir, strings, harp and organ.
The ten movements are based on a variety of biblical texts.
It has a wholly individual sound, especially as performed here
on a particularly characterful organ, and great charm right
from the Prelude, said to be in the style of Sebastian Bach
but not really reminding this listener of him very much. Its
mixture of rustic sounds and pastoral melodies is at times more
reminiscent of Massenet, but it is wholly delightful, as is
the rest of the work. The use of harp and organ together is
especially characterful. This brief Oratorio has a sound-world
all of its own, and it is this individuality which is well brought
out. The occasionally somewhat home-made sounds of the soloists
and organ in particular do not sound out of place here. All
sing and play with real understanding and fervour, and give
the very strong impression of a community act of piety rather
than a glossy concert presentation. The text is given only in
Latin but with the relevant Biblical sources.
With its unusual format, unlikely coupling and unfamiliar music
and performers and relatively short playing time, Sheva have
put unnecessary obstacles in place of the success of this disc.
This is regrettable, as it very much deserves it; it is one
of those very individual discs that sticks in the memory and
demands immediate replay.