Sunday MARCH 1st: The penitential season of Lent began this year on Wednesday, February 25, "Ash Wednesday" in the traditional Christian calendar. Across much of Europe in the olden days, especially in the Catholic countries, the opera houses were closed down until Easter. I observe that custom in presenting, over the upcoming Lenten Sundays, liturgical or general religious music for voice. Next to Lully, who was Italian by birth, Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was France's greatest composer in the era of the "Sun King," Louis XIV. Charpentier did compose operas in the Lullian style, but it was in music for the church that he really made his mark. French church music in Charpentier's time had become much secularized. The Jesuit institution in Paris for which he wrote his highly dramatic motets in Psalm settings became known as "The Church of Opera." Charpentier's music manuscripts are quite explicit in their instrumentation and other details -unusual by seventeenth century musical standards. From the vast surviving corpus of Charpentier's work the baroque specialist Jean Claude Malgoire selected all of the requisite elements for a recording of Vepres Solennelles or "Solemn Vespers." It's a truly grand affair for chorus, vocal soloist, and orchestra: a reconstruction of what plausibly could have been put together, including orchestral overtune and organ interludes, for the Jesuits' evening service on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Malgoire leads his own period instrument ensemble La Grand Ecurie e la Chambre du Roy. Taking part in the tapings for Radio France was the Regional Chorus of Nord, that extreme Northern province centering upon Pas-de-Calais. A 1987 release on two CDs through CBS Masterworks. I last broadcast the Charpentier "Solemn Vespers" during Lent on Sunday, March 22, 1992.
SUNDay MARCH 8th: Today we will share in some special programming while we participate in Marathon 2009.
SUNDay MARCH 15TH: Mozart was at the height of his creative powers when early in the year 1785 he was commissioned by the Viennese Society of Musicians to write an oratorio for a Lenten benefit concert. He had a personal interest in the charitable work of this organization, which provided for the impoverished widows and children of its deceased members. Busy writing operas and piano concertos, to fulfill his commission; Mozart borrowed music from his unfinished Mass in C Minor, K.427. The text for Davide penitente K.469 is in Italian language and may have been supplied by his operatic collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte. The recycled sections of the Latin Mass were augmented by newly composed arias of high operatic quality. Davide penitente was recorded complete at the historic Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 2006. Morton Schuldt-Jensen conducts the massed voices of the Immortal Bach Ensemble and the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra. Two Scandinavian sopranos, Trine Wilsberg Lund and Kristina Wahlin sing the solo arias, along with German tenor Lothar Odinius. Naxos Records released Davide penitente on a single CD in 2008.
Nicolas Gombert (c.1495 – c. 1560) ought to be better known as the supreme master of polyphonic vocal music in the generation between Josquin des Prez and Palestrina. Gombert seems to have been a pupil of Josquin and took Josquin's style to the next more complex level of development. Ten of Gombert's settings of the Mass survive, along with 160 Latin motets, 60 secular French chansons, and eight Magnificats, one for each of the old church modes. Gombert's motet Media Vita in Morte Sumus ("In the Middle of Life We Are in Death") is his six-voice treatment of the plainsong respond for Sundays between Epiphany and Lent in the Roman Catholic liturgy. He employed that same plainchant melody in his five-part Missa Media Vita. The six male singers of the Hilliard Ensemble interpret the Ordinary of the Mass Media Vita, the related motet, four more liturgical motets, plus Musae Iovis for six voices, Gambert's musical tribute to the late great Josquin. An ECM "New Series" CD release from 2006.
Sunday MARCH 22ND: Lent was traditionally a time for teaching the precepts of the Christina faith, often drawing upon the parables Jesus used to instruct the multitudes in his time. In the medieval Church Jesus' parables and other Bible stories were worked into the texts of ritualized dramas: the mystery and miracle plays. Benjamin Britten was inspired to compose three "Parables for Church Performance": Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968). He had already turned out a cantata along similar lines Saint Nicolas (1948) about the life and miracles of Christendom's most popular holy man. (A recording of which was broadcast on this program on Sunday, December 7, 2008.) The stimulus to write more works in that vein come from Britten's contact in 1956 with the severely ritualized Japanese Noh drama. British musicologist Christopher Palmer has written, "we should recognize a major achievement: that Britten, while speaking an essentially contemporary language, contrives to create a sound-world that is both exotic and archaic, yet partakes of hardly any exotic or archaic musical conventions." You will hear two of Britten's "parables" on this Lenten Sunday.The first was drawn from the Old Testament book of the prophet Daniel: The Burning Fiery Furnace. Britten was not the first British composer set to music the story of King Nebuchadnezzar and the three Israelite youths. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford had done so in his oratorio The Three Holy Children (1885). So did George Dyson with his Nebuchadnezzar oratorio (1935). Then we turn to Jesus' own parable in the New Testament Gospels, The Prodigal Son, rendered into a lyrical text by William Plomer. In both these "parable" performances the composer himself directed the singers and instrumentalists of the English Opera Group. They were recorded for the British Decca label in 1967 - 68. Decca reissued those recordings in digitally upgraded sound in 2005 in the same nine-CD boxed set that includes the Saint Nicolas cantata.
Sunday MARCH 29th: Edward Elgar's The Light of Life (1896) is the immediate predecessor of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. The music clearly looks forward to Gerontius and Elgar's two New Testament oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom. (All three of them I have featured during holy week.) The Light of Life (or Lux Christi as Elgar preferred to call it) recounts the story of Jesus' restoration of a blind man's sight, as taken from the Gospel according to St. John. In the 1981 EMI LP release Sir Charles Groves leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, with vocal soloists soprano Margaret Marshall as the Mother of the Blind Man, contralto Helen Watts as the Evangelical Narrator, tenor Robin Leggate as the Blind Man himself, and baritone John Shirley-Quick as Jesus. EMI reintroduced this recording in 1993 on a single silver disc in its "Classics" line. The old LPs issue I broadcast on Sunday, April 12, 1998.
Over the years Antonin Dvořák's poignant setting of the medieval Latin devotional poem Stabat Mater (1877) has been one of my most frequently programmed features either for Holy Week in the Spring or All Saint's Day on or around November first. I've broadcast the familiar orchestrated composition at least four times before between 1991 and 2003. Dvořák's long-lost manuscript score of the Stabat Mater has recently been discovered. His original 1876 version is arranged for chorus and four solo voices with piano accompaniment. Dvořák added three orchestrated numbers later. The manuscript, however, extends by 44 bars the final choral "Amen": music that has never been heard before. The vocal writing in the 1976 version is even more dramatic than the standard 1877 score – operatic certainly, yet also reminiscent of a baroque cantata. The 1876 version has been published by Bärenreiter of Prague, as edited by Miloslav Srnka. Conductor Laurence Equilbey took up the edition for its world premiere recorded performance. Equilbey directs his own Accentus vocal ensemble. The French label Naive released the new Dvořák Stabat Mater in 2008.
Sunday APRIL 5th: George Frideric Handel came from Halle
in Northern Germany. Ultimately he became a citizen of the world with a cosmopolitan outlook on the writing of music. Early in his career he left behind the pietistic traditions of North German Lutheranism. In 1716, after establishing himself as a composer of Italian opera in London, he returned briefly to Germany and these Lutheran traditions to set Brockes Passion. Several other German composers had tackled this text. The passion-oratorio was particularly popular in Hamburg. J.S. Bach copied half of Handel's setting of it for personal reference. Uncongenial as the German poetry of Barthold Heinrich Brockes was to him, Handel's essay of his Passion is a monument of the German baroque oratorio style comparable to Bach's own St. John Passion.
Hungary's period instrument ensemble, Capella Savaria, recorded Handel's one and only Passion setting complete for Hungaroton (what was once the Hungarian state record label) in 1985. The British baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan directs the Capella and the Stadtsingechor Halle, Germany's oldest established boys' choir. Some of the solo singers are Hungarian, others from Germany or Austria. There's also a Belgian tenor Guy de Mey and British countertenor Drew Minter. I last broadcast these three Hungaroton LPs on Sunday, March 17, 1991.
Sunday APRIL 12th: This Easter Sunday I repeat the two-part programming I originally offered up at Easter of 1993 Easter Sunday I repeat the two-part programming I originally offered up at Easter of 1993 (April 11, '93 to be exact), which was by turns Judaic and Christian. Honoring this date as a Christian holiday is a long cantata by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called in German Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu or "The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus" (1778). CPE Bach considered it to be his single finest composition, one from which, according to a letter he wrote mentioning this work, "young composers can learn something." Die Auferstehung is not a Biblical oratorio or a Passion setting of the sort the elder JS Bach might have written. Rather CPE Bach's "Resurrection" cantata is a more secularized, progressive outgrowth of those same traditions of North German Protestant sacred music drama that inspired his father to write his baroque masterpieces. The style of the younger Bach's music represents the transition from Baroque to the early Classical. The cantata is given a thoroughly authentic "period" treatment from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Collegium Vocale of Ghent with three vocal soloists. Phillippe Herreweghe conducts the entire ensemble. Virgin Classics released CPE Bach's Auferstehung on one generously Time CD in 1992. Another British label, Hyperion came out with an equally good recording of it with Sigiswald Kuijken directing La Petite Band and the Ex Temporale Chorale. That "Resurrection" cantata I presented on Easter Sunday, 2004. Telemann wrote a similar short "Resurrection" work that was heard on a cpo compact disc at Easter 2000. Today I return to the Virgin Classics interpretation.
Passover this year began on April 9th. We celebrate the High Holy Day with a great piece of Judaic religious music for baritone solo, mixed chorus, and large orchestra: Avodath Hakodesh or "Sacred Service" (1930 - 33) by Ernest Bloch. The baritone takes the role of cantor in Bloch's oratorio-style musical rendering of the Hebrew liturgical texts. Robert Merrill is the cantorial baritone heard in an historic recording of the "Sacred Service" taped in 1960 with Leonard Bernstein directing the New York Philharmonic, the Choir of the Metropolitan Synagogue, and the Choir of the Community Church of New York. Sony Classical came out with a series of jewel box CD sets of their enormous audiotape holdings documenting Bernstein's legacy as a conductor. The Bloch "Sacred Service" together with Bernstein's interpretations of The Song of Songs by Luca Foss and Sweet Psalmist of Israel by Paul Ben-Haim are contained in issue number eighteen in the series.
Sunday APRIL 19th: Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith falls on this Sunday, due to Orthodoxy's peculiarly backward oriented and unreformed calendar. The discrepancy provides me with the opportunity to present the single finest example of Russian Orthodox Church music, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers (1915) for the liturgical rites of Easter Eve. Long ago, on the Sunday after Easter, 1985, I broadcast an almost liturgically complete recording of this music. Then on another post-Easter Sunday in 2001 came a BBC Singers interpretation of the core Vespers choral components. This time around you get to hear a truly Russian presentation. Victor Popov is the conductor, leading the Academy of Choral Art, Moscow singing these core elements of Rachmaninoff's Opus 37. A 2007 Delos single CD release.
There's time remaining today to listen to some of the sacred choral music of Ludwig Von Beethoven. Although a titular Roman Catholic, Beethoven was not a conventionally religious man. His god was a universal father described in Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" - a figure above and beyond all established religions. Beethoven wrote only two musical settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, the famous Missa Solemnis (1823) and the lesser-known Mass in C (1807), which was commissioned by Prince Nicolas Eszterhazy the Second. The Prince expected something along the lines of Haydn's much admired Masses. He got instead music of elemental power in earnest simplicity in the most progressive Beethovenian style - a style people often found incomprehensible in those days. Sir Colin Davis has recently taken up the Mass in C with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It was heard live in concert in 2006 at the Barbican, the venue where the orchestra has recorded so much for its own LSO Live label.
SUNDAY APRIL 26TH: After all the difficulties getting his comic opera Die Hochzeit des Comacho ("The Marriage of Camacho") mounted at a public theater in Berlin, its one and only performance was a dismal failure. Yet prior to this fiasco at the Schauspielhaus in 1827 young Felix Mendelssohn wrote a series of witty and tuneful stage works that went wonderfully well in private performances. The teenager's three-act comic opera Die Beide Neffen oderder Onkel aus Boston ("The Two Nephews, or the Uncle from Boston," 1823) was written for his composition teacher Karl Friedrich Zelter and pleased a sizable audience gathered at the Mendelssohn family home. A ballad opera in one act, Heimkehr aus der Fremde ("Son and Stranger" or "The Homecoming from Foreign Parts"), premiered with much success at Christmastime of 1829 in the Garden Hall of their mansion in Berlin. The score of Heimkehr was published after Felix's untimely death in 1847 and was performed all over Germany, as well as England and France, between 1851 and '79. Conductor Helmut Rilling has championed these two charming works. Rilling was responsible for the world premiere recording of Der Onkel aus Boston. That one went over the airwaves live in performance as co-produced by West German Radio Three Essen in 2004. Rilling led the two musical organizations he founded, the choral group Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach Collegium instrumental ensemble of Stuttgart. Heimkehr was broadcast in coproduction with Southwest German Radio Stuttgart in 2003. Again Rilling directed the Gachinger Kantorei and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart. The solo singers in both recordings all hail from Central Europe, with the sole exception of British soprano Kate Royal. Both operas were originally released on Hanssler Classic compact discs. They were picked up for re-issue in the United States through Musical Heritage Society.
I have those two MHS recordings in my own collection of operas on CD. Also to be found in my collection are the recordings of the Charpentier Vepres Solennelles and Elgar's The Light of Life. Rob Meehan, a specialist record collector in the "alternative musics" of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, contributed his Decca boxed CD set, which include those two Parables of Benjamin Britten, to this two-month lineup of programming. All the other featured recordings come out of our stations ever expanding CD holdings of classical music in general and opera particular. Thanks to Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for her preparation of these notes for publication.
Program Guide, 2009