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Classical Music - Part 9 - March, 2000

Jason Serinus

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"Sacred Treasures III: Choral Masterworks from Russia and Beyond"

Various Artists

Hearts of Space; 11114-2


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Hearts of Space (HOS) is the record label which grew out of the nationally-syndicated “space music” radio program begun by Stephen Hill on Berkeley’s renegade Pacifica radio station, KPFA-FM. Known to audiophiles from The Absolute Sound’s sonically-rewarding Hearts of Space compilation (nla), the label has since come in from outer space to welcome Celtic music, sacred music, and various New Age vocals and instrumentals to its fold.

Now, HOS gifts listeners with another sacred choral music collection. Like its best-selling Sacred Treasures I, Sacred Treasures III mostly features Russian choral music sung by established Russian choruses whose soaring sounds and deep basses resonate with the soul of the motherland. While many of these pieces are taken from older recordings, each with a different sonic signature, some were recorded especially for this album.

The contents of this assemblage of slow, sacred adagios extend from ancient Greek Orthodox chant to contemporary compositions. Four are excerpted from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31; three are from his All Night Vigil, Op. 37, (Rachmaninov’s Vespers). One of Rachmaninov’s teachers is represented by a Serenade. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, remembered most for his huge orchestral Scheherazade and other knock-your-socks-off scores, surprises us with the intimate “Our Father” from his Op. 22 collection of religious texts. Among the others are a contemporary Georgian chorale, and a modern setting of J. S. Bach’s “Komm Susser Tod” (“Come Sweet Death”). With a title like that, maybe Bach should have had more fiber in his diet. All pieces are equally profound and reverential.

Unstinted praise must go to Hearts of Space mastering (and recording) engineer Bob Ohlsson, whose knowledge and ability equal those of the best in the business. Presented with a sonic hodgepodge, he and Stephen Hill have created a sonically-engrossing, otherworldly, “space music” presentation that takes both this music, and any listeners who devote themselves to reverential listening, to another time and place.

With the gentle caveat that tempo and mood remain unvaried from cut to cut, and that some may prefer more spice to their music, this CD is perfect background for massage, meditation, or the twilight that comes after two meld into one. Listened to on its own, as music for music’s sake, it can become a sacred act.

This is candlelit, contemplative Christian music at its most soothing and profound. Sit in silence, and be reminded of who you really are.

- Jason Serinus -

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"Arvo Pärt"

Alina

ECM New Series 1591 ; CD 289-449-958-2

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I could compare my music to white light which contains
all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make  them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.

Arvo Pärt (born 1935) is an Estonian composer whose more recent, Christian-based compositions combine a deeply religious, ancient faith with a contemporary musical aesthetic. In the wake of Schoenbergian twelve-tone music, agnostic serialism, and thousands of intellectually-stimulating compositions that leave most music lovers feeling both empty and left out, Arvo Pärt,  along with John Taverner and Henry Gorecki, has created a new form of classical music with spiritual roots.

When I first read that this CD consists of just two compositions, one offered in two arrangements, the other in three, and that both are spare and “minimal” in nature, I put the disc in the “wait and see” pile. Hmm, I thought. A dull cover (the editor made it more useful here in Secrets), and a CD that could have held much more music if only ECM had invested the money.

How wrong I was. The cover art may be minimal, but the music is anything but boringly repetitious à la some of the music of a composer (reviewed last time) whose initials are P.G. Quite the contrary, this seemingly-simple music has a unique mystical beauty that can positively lull one into trance. And having multiple variations of these spare compositions only deepens their impact.

Composed in 1976, after two years of creative silence on the part of the composer, the solo piano piece Für Alina marks the beginnings of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli style.” This very quiet composition consists of a seemingly simple repetitive triad, with notes punctuated by silences. Originally barely two minutes in length, the piece was accompanied by the markings “calm, exalted, listening to one’s inner self.” Pärt himself chose the two new, close to 11 minute extended variations heard on this CD.

The duet Spiegel im Spiegel was composed just two years later. It is dedicated to violinist Vladimir Spivakov, who, 17 years after the premiere, has recorded the violin part in two of the three variations contained on this disc. He is joined variously by pianists Alexander Malter and Segei Bezrodny, while Malter joins cellist Dietmar Schwalke to play the central variation.

I can only describe this simple, repetitive composition as a gem. It instills in me both a sense of peace and a childlike wonder that anything so simple could affect the listener in such a profound way.

Pianist Alexander Malter and ECM producer Manfred Eicher have done wonders in bringing out the ringing, tintinnabulist sounds inherent in these compositions. Pärt is correct. This music is filled with light.

- Jason Serinus -

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"DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH   String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, Op. 83 (1949); No. 6 in G Major Op. 101 (1956); No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (1960)"

St. Petersburg String Quartet

Hyperion; DCA-67154

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Tired of spiritual music, space music, trance music, serenity and peace, peace peace? Try Shostakovich!

Once upon a time, in the early days of the Soviet revolution, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a happy camper, at least some of the time. His youthful Symphony No. 1, which premiered when he was 19 years old, boded well for his future. Conductors such as Walter, Toscanini, and Klemperer were drawn to his music, and word spread internationally. He composed film scores for Hollywood, charmed Russian audiences with his 1928 Tahiti Trot send-off on “Tea for Two,” and composed two Jazz Suites in 1934 and 1938.

Starting in 1935, however, it was decreed as the “duty” of every Soviet composer to write music that conformed to the requirements of “Socialist” or “Soviet” realism. When Dmitri did not heed the call, the harmonies and subject matter of his great 1936 dissonant opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, met with the disapproval of Joseph Stalin. Within a ten day period, Shostakovich was twice vilified in the official journal Pravda, and was effectively branded an “enemy of the people.” Although he recovered some of his public reputation via the debut of his extremely popular Symphony No. 5, with its subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Answer to Just Criticism” – a title he used to mask the symphony’s protest against his subjugation – he had to proceed carefully from then on.

As time progressed, Shostakovich’s music increasingly registered his anguish, disaffection, and protest with control and domination. Sometimes the protest was obvious and outright; when protest was too dangerous to be stated directly, however, it was masked, as in the Fifth Symphony, by the composition’s ostensible programmatic purpose of expressing outrage against the Czar or the Germans or war in general. But the protest, anger, and outrage over Shostakovich’s personal oppression and lack of artistic freedom were there nonetheless.

While Shostakovich wrote nine symphonies before the start of World War II, thirteen of his fifteen string quartets were written after that time. Composed during a time of increasing political pressure on him and other artists, they are amongst his most personal and truthful statements.

In 1948, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and other “formalist” composers were summoned to deliver speeches at the Union of Composers’ Congress. Dmitri was handed a prepared speech and ordered to read it. At one point, he diverged from the script, and said in a troubled voice, “It always seems to me that when I write sincerely and as I truly feel, then my music cannot be ‘against’ the People, that after all, I myself am a representative…in some small way …of the People.”

Words aside, Shostakovich knew that the only way to remain “of the people” rather than become of the dead was to tread carefully. String Quartet No. 4 was composed in 1949, but intentionally withheld from performance until 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. While the notes accompanying this CD suggest that its “opening folk-like theme suggests Sibelius or Nielsen, as if we were in the open fields in Scandinavian mid-summer,” anyone familiar with either traditional Jewish music or Shostakovich’s own compositions based on Jewish themes would point to the latter as the source of his inspiration. (After sensing this, I discovered that this is exactly what the author of liner notes for the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s recording of this work suggests. Is there anti-semitism at work here? As someone born Jewish, I feel it necessary to ask this question.) Regardless, by middle and late Shostakovich standards, this is a relatively subdued and harmonious work. Quite subtle in its approach, its beauties are many.

Things had improved considerably for Shostakovich by the time he composed String Quartet No. 6 (1956). While there is an insistent, repeated pattern in the first movement that reminds me of hammering, this troubled music gives way to much lovely, heart-touching, tear-filled and gentle melody. The piece was written for the Beethoven Quartet, and was played at a concert commemorating Shostakovich’s Fiftieth birthday.

String Quartet No. 8 was written in 1960. Shostakovich had been in Dresden, writing a film score, and was so moved by the remains of the city’s bombardment that he wrote this most famous of his quartets in just three days. This piece is very forward and direct, and its powerful message cannot be missed.

This recording by the multiple prize-winning St. Petersburg Quartet is the second in a series that will eventually include all 15 of Shostakovich’s quartets. This group, which consists of three men and one woman who graduated from the Leningrad  Conservatory, was formed in 1985. Initially named the “Leningrad String Quartet,” it underwent a name change when Leningrad was renamed. (Who knows what changes it will go through in the years ahead)?

For a performance comparison, I played the highly-recommended Fitzwilliam Quartet version of String Quartet No. 8. (The BMG Record Club offers their complete set of all 15 Quartets). I found their analogue to digital recording much warmer-sounding than the one under review. While each St. Petersburg instrument stood out by itself in a distinct position on an unusually wide soundstage, the Fitzwilliam’s blended together in a more natural manner. Most importantly, in part as a result of the recording techniques employed, the Fitzwilliam performance touched me on a deeper level. But this is not to suggest that the St. Petersburg Quartet performances are anything less than excellent. The group plays very well, and the recording has much to offer. For those wishing a recording of these three quartets, or who wish to sample this music for the first time, this version is certainly recommended. 

 - Jason Serinus -

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