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CD Review

20th-Century Choral Works

Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola/Kent Tritle
MSR Classics MS1251 49:41
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Lamentations.

Two a cappella choral masterpieces by two of the past century's best. Both have become standard rep for top choral groups, and both require top-flight choirs just to get through them at all. Yet the composers write with great understanding of the choir and know particularly what makes an effective choral piece.

Ginastera's Lamentations of Jeremiah comes from early in his Bartók phase, over a decade before he moved into dodecaphony. In 1945, the Argentinean pre-Perón junta forced Ginastera from his teaching positions for signing a petition supporting civil liberties. At that point, Ginastera took advantage of a Guggenheim awarded in 1942, but postponed due to the Second World War, to travel with his family to the United States, where he remained until 1947. The Lamentations appeared in 1946. Jews remember Jeremiah as the prophet of the Babylonian exile, although Christians look on his verses as forerunners of Christ's Passion. The piece has three movements: "O vos omnes," "Ego vir videns," and "Recordare." Several Renaissance masters have set "O vos omnes," always within the context of Easter – slow and mournful. However, we get the word "jeremiad" from the prophet Jeremiah as well. If you get past the first verse, "O vos omnes" actually talks about the wrath of God against the nation. One can't help but think of Ginastera railing against the Perónistas' Argentina. It opens with howls and stamps and rages to its end. It is essentially an invocation and fugue, where Baroque counterpoint fuses with South American dance.

"Ego vir videns" laments that a wrathful God has "driven and brought me into darkness without any light." It has both the intensity and the chasteness of a motet by Victoria. The colors are low and dark, with lots of quartal harmony, but when the speaker still hopes for his rescue in the Lord, they miraculously (in one simple harmonic progression) transform into consolation. "Recordare," a plea for the return to God and to Israel which ends in praise, continues the harmonic idiom of fourths and fifths, but with more elaborate counterpoint, shown by its structure of successive fugatos. The music begins solemnly and becomes increasingly joyful.

The course of the argument of each movement is complex, and a composer could easily lose a unifying thread and collapse into sectionalism. Ginastera somehow never does. Indeed, his music subtly morphs from one turn of thought to the other. The choral "orchestration" – what voices sing at any moment, how one texture leads to the next – shows the hand of a choral master.

Alfred Schnittke's music seems emblematic of his times as well – the chaos of the transition from the coercive Soviet Union to the Gilded Age Wild West of the current Russian oligarchy. The art of the period is heterodox, from the officially-sanctioned Socialist Realism, to the "jazz" of Kapustin and the experimentalism of Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and Denisov, to the grim orthodoxies of Ustvolskaya. Schnittke first studied music in Vienna and on his return to the Soviet Union began "filling in the gaps" of the music he didn't know, often by writing works in those newly-met styles. To me, his work in toto presents a bewildering variety. The government demanded an accessible style from its composers, although paradoxically, the Khrushchev era allowed the entry of major Modernist and post-Modern scores by the likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and Nono. Schnittke began with Shostakovich and, like that composer, had to go through the usual nonsense of official commendation and condemnation. Many of his concert works went into his desk drawer, to wait for conditions to relax. His first symphony was officially banned. He wrote serially for a while, but his acquaintance with the new Western avant-garde caused him to abandon wholesale serialism and strike out on newer paths. In the meantime, he wrote for films and theater productions, which also affected his later music. He became a super-eclectic – in the terms of current criticism of his work, a "polystylist." He will often take a style as a starting point and work his own twists on it. In this regard, he reminds me a little of Lukas Foss.

Baptized Roman Catholic in the Eighties, Schnittke took his Concerto for Choir (1985) text from St. Grigor Natekatsi, an Armenian monk who died in 1003, and from his Book of Lamentations, prayers and spiritual exercises. Like Whitman and Christopher, a lot of the text consists of long lists. Coming in at about 36 minutes (pretty hefty for an a cappella work), the Concerto takes incredible stamina from a choir. The music is unrelentingly intense – no breathers or places to cruise. The first movement, the longest by a good bit, both glorifies God, quality by quality, and pleads for salvation. Schnittke gets his start from the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and the sophisticated choral writing of something like Rachmaninoff's Vespers. For me, this movement counts as a compositional miracle – its coherence over a long stretch, its minimal means, its grip on the listener. It's essentially one idea repeated for 14 minutes, but Schnittke finds simple changes that nevertheless come across as brilliantly unpredictable. This is one of those pieces in which one can very easily analyze its elements and still miss the reasons why it works.

The second movement obsesses over all the people the prayers will help and ends with a radiant appeal to God's grace. The roughest movement for both choir and listener, the third prays that the book "calm the storm of unbelief." Schnittke's music portrays madness, intellectual blindness, error, and "crime." The dissonances come thick and rough. But all coheres in the same way as the other movements. For the most part, a basic idea repeats and varies. This movement has more sections to it, but it still moves overall, and you feel not the pieces, but the general thrust.

The finale dedicates the prayers to God and once again the supplicant pleads that God not abandon him or anyone helped by the book toward belief. I find its music the loveliest of the work, with gorgeous chords and a stunning minute-long diminuendo Amen.

Ginastera's Lamentations display a high degree of finish, and they burn white-hot. However, they're significantly shorter than Schnittke's Concerto and in a sense less ambitious, although I have no wish to dump on a masterpiece. One talks of Ginastera's choral "orchestration," but Schnittke really does treat the choir as an orchestra. Where Ginastera hits hard and quickly, Schnittke's effects take a longer time to realize. He builds huge spans. He could get washed out in pretention and dullness, but instead he manages to create one of the great choral works of the past thirty years. Compared to this, most of Tavener's choral music – and even Pärt's and Górecki's – seems pretty thin.

As I've said, it takes a fine choir just to get through either one of these pieces, and the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola, an adjunct of the Park Avenue church in New York, more than qualifies. While I can imagine a better recording of both works, I can't imagine a better live performance, and it's indeed a live performance that this CD has captured. So here and there, funny little things go awry in the Schnittke, but not enough to really matter. Kent Tritle, who will be leaving St. Ignatius for St. John the Divine, has not only done stunning work with his choir, but a fabulous job shaping these complex works.

I was all set to whinge about the short running time of this disc, but these pieces wring me out so much, I don't really feel short-changed. Recommended, for all sorts of reasons.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.