As NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas recently detailed, finding classical music in the streaming era can be difficult, and the same goes for keeping up with new releases. I subscribe to The New York Times's classical playlist on Spotify, which provides the occasional lead but seems unfocused overall. I get some scoops from various label newsletters, as well as by signing up on the websites of new music ensembles. There are also a few excellent PR firms that update me in this arena, which definitely helps.
It was one of those firms that tipped me to Orli Shaham's excellent Brahms-themed collection, which I reviewed in part one of this micro-miniseries. Even with all those tributaries feeding my classical needs, I can't for the life of me remember how I found out about the album I discuss below, or even what drew me to it. Read on and remember that you heard about it from me!
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart - Italia Part of a series focusing on the choral traditions of various countries, Italia is a brilliantly sequenced survey of Italian compositions from the 19th and 20th centuries. While Italy doesn't have the same depth of choral music that Germany and England boast, it does have Verdi, who slathered his operas with choral music at every opportunity, with profound dramatic and musical impact. Also, his Requiem is one of three essential entries in the genre, alongside Mozart and Brahms.
So Verdi is a natural place for conductor Marcus Creed to begin, opening Italia with two of Verdi's 4 Pezzi sacri. A quick survey of other takes on this oft-recorded masterpiece immediately reveals the SWR's strengths as they deliver a performance of elevated clarity, seamless vocal blend, and transporting engagement with the subject matter. Before the first of the pieces is over, you know you're in good hands and ready to buckle in for a trip to wherever they want to take you.
The next stop is in fact Yliam, a 1960's work by Giacinto Scelsi reminiscent of some of Ligeti's interstellar excursions, a sound that will be familiar to fans of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this concise and intense piece for female singers, the sopranos and altos pursue separate lines that occasionally criss-cross like strands of DNA in the air. Scelsi was an autodidact in both composition and mysticism and he ties both interests together nicely in Yliam. Scelsi's work blends smoothly into another Verdi piece, O Padre Noster, which is not without its own brand of incense-laden Catholic mysticism. The baritones and basses really distinguish themselves here, singing with a veiled power that is all the more impressive for its restraint.
Then we come back to 1960 with Luigi Nono's Sara Dolce Tacere (Such Sweet Silence, perhaps?), a setting of Cesar Pavese's La terra e la morte (Earth and Death) for eight soloists. Creed wisely chose something by Nono that fits with the preceding Verdi and Scelsi pieces rather than going with one of Nono's explicitly political works. Sara Dolce Tacere has the feel of a group dialogue or a study in dynamics, with voices rising and falling, seeming to appear and recede like waves on a stony shore.
Ildebrando Pizzetti was born in 1880, when Verdi was entering his last and possibly greatest decade, premiering operas such as Aida, Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra (a personal favorite), and Otello. This extraordinary run may have had an effect on other composers born then - the "Generation of 1880" - as they largely avoided creating operas. Pizzetti himself was unintimidated, however, composing more than a dozen operas, all largely forgotten, and even a Requiem. His Tre Composizione Corali, however is nothing so grand. While fairly conventional, it creates a peaceful atmosphere with song-like melodies and a chant-like blend of voices. The third piece, Recordare, domine, may be a little overlong at 10 minutes but that's a minor complaint. Nono the Marxist would probably object the loudest to Pizzetti's inclusion here, as the latter was occasionally cozy with Mussolini's fascist government.
Pizzetti's conservatism is quickly blown away by Scelsi's TKRDG, also a three-part work, for six male voices, percussion and electric guitar. This is just a fantastic and fascinating piece, incorporating Japanese and Indian influences with both irreverence and respect, creating a ritualistic soundscape that the SWR inhabits completely. The interaction between the vocalists and the instrumentalists is more natural and assured than other recordings I've heard, aided in part by the excellent production, and may make this the definitive rendering of this important piece. In my mind, TKRDG connects the avant garde elements on Italia to that other Italian genius, Ennio Morricone, who is a big fan of Scelsi - your ears will likely agree.
The album closes with Goffredo Petrassi's five-part Nonsense, based on limericks by Edward Lear and composed in 1952. Petrassi's long life nearly covers the entire period represented here, as he was born in 1904 and died in 2003. He was known for being open to new ideas and his writing in these short, lighthearted pieces seems tied to no particular era. It's a delightful way to end the collection and leaves you marveling at the SWR's versatility and verve. I look forward to exploring the other releases in the series and seeing what Creed and the ensemble do next.
P.S. Creed is on a roll this year, having just released L'amour et la foi, a wonderful album of vocal music by Messiaen performed by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Even if you're familiar with 3 Petit Liturgies and the other pieces this is worth a listen.
You might also like:
Il Mondo Musica Italiana