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America
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Four Motets (1921) [12:05]
Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Proverb (1995) [13:21]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Five (1988) [5:01]
Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
The Rothko Chapel (1971) [26:02]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Missa Brevis (1988) [13:03]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map (1940) [7:42]
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed
Kerstin Steube (soprano) (Copland, Reich); Johanna Zimmer (soprano) (Reich, Cage, Feldman); Kirsten Drope (soprano) (Reich); Angelika Lenter (soprano) (Cage); Ulrike Koch (alto) (Copland); (Sophia Maeno, Sabine Czinczel (alto) (Cage); Ulrike Becker (alto) (Cage, Feldman); Franz Vitzthum (countertenor) (Bernstein); Rüdiger Linn (tenor) (Copland); Julius Pfeifer, Johannes Kaleschke (tenor) (Reich); Alexander Yudenkov (tenor) (Barber); Andra Darzins (viola) (Feldman); Tomoko Hemmi, Jürgen Kruse (synthesizer) (Reich); Markus Stange (celesta, piano) (Feldman); Franz Bach, Boris Müller (vibraphone) (Reich); Boris Müller (percussion) (Feldman, Bernstein); Peer Kaliss (percussion) (Bernstein); Franz Bach (timpani) (Barber).
rec. Christuskirche Gänsheide, Stuttgart, 11-12 March 2013 (Copland), 12 March 2013 (Cage), 14 March 2013 (Bernstein); SWR-Funkstudio, Stuttgart, 7-8 March 2013 (Reich), 14-15 November 2012 (Feldman), 18 March 2013 (Barber). Texts in English with German translation (Copland, Barber) and Latin with German and English translation (Bernstein).<
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.306 [77:33]

This collection of unusual twentieth-century American choral music upholds the high standards and versatility of Marcus Creed’s remarkable Stuttgart SWR Vokalensemble. These works have had previous recordings, but not at all commonly and not in this particular combination. So, this disc is welcome for the programme alone — one that offers a rich variety of musical styles.

The Four Motets are early works that Copland composed in Paris while studying with Nadia Boulanger. She responded with enthusiasm to them, whereas Copland dismissed them as “schoolboy works exhibiting some influence of Mussorgsky”, according to the notes to the CD by Julika Jahnke. The motets are unaccompanied and consist of two prayers of meditation (Help Us, O Lord and Have Mercy on Us, O My Lord) alternating with two songs of praise (Thou, O Jehovah, Abideth Forever) and (Sing Ye Praises to Our King). In addition to Mussorgsky, they show the influence of Renaissance motets. While they sound little like the Copland most of us know, they are melodic and quite memorable. They receive a fine performance here, even if the words are not always ideally intelligible. This may have more to do with the acoustic of the recording. The motets benefit from a smaller choir, such as The Sixteen, who has recorded them for Coro in another mixed programme of American music by some of the same composers. Nonetheless, the SWR Vokalensemble provides plenty of pleasure here.

The contrast with Steve Reich’s Proverb could hardly be greater. Reich dedicated this work to Paul Hillier. Scored for five voices, two vibraphones, and two synthesizers with Baroque organ, Proverb is influenced by the polyphonic organa as introduced by the Medieval composer Pérotin, The text is based on a proverb of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” The proverb is introduced by the solo sopranos and is repeated throughout the thirteen-minute length of the piece with the instrumental rhythmic pattern providing the kind of repetition associated with Reich and other American minimalists. At times the vocal line reminded me of John Adams’El niño or even some of Arvo Pärt’s choral music. I find it best to just let the music wash over you in this mesmerizing performance.

The Cage piece, Five, is one of the composer’s late chance “number pieces”. It is made up of five tones, here sung by three altos and two sopranos and lasting five minutes. Here it is sung on an “ah” syllable, but it can also be performed by five instruments. It is up to the performers as to how it will be performed. As is stated in the notes, each musician has “a sheet with five tones and decides within prescribed ‘time-brackets’ spontaneously and individually when he begins and ends” a tone. Five minutes of this static, indeterminate music-making is quite sufficient to get the idea across.

Feldman’s The Rothko Chapel is also a very slow-moving work, as is typical of this composer. Again the vocal line is wordless and the voices are treated as part of the instrumental texture, until later in the work when the soprano soloist contributes a vocalise in the usual sense. What makes the piece interesting is its use of solo viola with vibraphone and celesta along with solo soprano and alto voices. The viola solo, accompanied by vibraphone and present throughout the work, is especially haunting in its lyricism during the last three minutes of the piece. There is a video on You Tube of a portion of this work lasting nine minutes with some of the muted paintings of Mark Rothko that inspired the piece. This is, I think, the most effective way to hear The Rothko Chapel. As music, though, it is more suitable for meditation. I cannot imagine a better performance than the one it receives here.

One will be quickly aroused from his or her meditation by the next work on the disc, Bernstein’s Missa Brevis. It is one of the composer’s last works, although arranged from choral music he wrote in 1955 to the play, The Lark, about the trial of Joan of Arc. The Kyrie is arresting, but the music does not initially sound much like Bernstein. It has the feeling of the Renaissance and Middle Ages about it with its use of parallel fourths and fifths, and its countertenor solos. In some respects it reminds me of Stravinsky’s austere Mass. It is scored for mixed choir, solo counter-tenor, and percussion, though the booklet note has it as “a cappella.” It is an attractive work that should be better known, based on this performance. Bernstein employs tubular bells effectively in several sections of the score and uses the counter-tenor “freely”. When one reaches the Agnus Dei and especially the Dona Nobis Pacem, there is no doubt whatsoever who the composer is. The ending is redolent of Bernstein’s own theater work, Mass. There are “alleluias” in the final section of the work, unusual for the standard mass text, which are omitted from the text in the booklet. I will be returning to this Missa Brevis when I want to hear something different in the Bernstein canon, especially in this vibrant performance by all involved. However, it is unlikely to gain the popularity of another favorite Bernstein religious work, Chichester Psalms.

The last selection on the disc, Barber’s, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, may be the most unusual of all given its title. Barber set it to the text of a poem by Stephen Spender, a British poet, concerning the death of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He scored it for male choir and timpani. It is a very effective piece and a kind of funeral march, once heard not forgotten. It makes quite an impact with the timpani playing a crucial role, especially their glissandi during the poem’s second stanza. The notes claim it to be “very modern by Barber’s standards”, but I don’t see it as any more modern than much of his music — unless you know only the Adagio or the Violin Concerto. The men of the SWR Vokalensemble and timpanist capture the spirit of the work to perfection.

I have been most impressed with these forces in twentieth-century choral music, including Charles Ives’ Psalms, the Hindemith disc I reviewed here earlier, and this CD. Overall, the sound is good, even though ideally the choir could be clearer at times. Still, with such an unusual and varied programme, this disc is warmly welcomed.

Leslie Wright