Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Album Review: Music in a Time of War

The album’s title, Music for a Time of War, forces the conceit a bit because, with the exception of John Adams’s The Wound Dresser and possibly Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, there’s nothing specifically wartime-related on the program. But that shouldn’t dissuade you from picking up this outstanding album of music by Charles Ives, Adams, Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by its music director, Carlos Kalmar.

What does Ives’s mystical The Unanswered Question have to do with war? Not very much, but as Steven Kruger says in his liner notes, “Ultimately, a contemplative work is whatever the listener makes of it.” This is a superb performance of Ives’s mini-masterpiece. With their beautifully hushed well-articulated playing, the Oregon strings make the slow-motion opening chorale something that’s both mysterious and beautiful. Here’s an interesting listening exercise, listen to the Ives and then Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes and you will appreciate how prescient the old guy from Danbury really was.

Mr. Kruger doesn’t have to sell the war connection in the Wound Dresser, Adams’s setting of Civil War poems by Walt Whitman. This emotionally riveting performance by baritone Sanford Sylvan (who premiered and absolutely owns this work) might even surpass his earlier recording with the composer. This is a heartfelt and deeply moving reading that’s a model of intelligent and beautifully crafted vocalism. Once again the Oregon strings are brilliant, making the agitated phrase “Hard the breathing rattles…” a pulse-stopping moment.

Music by two of England’s greatest 20th century composers rounds out the program. Written during some of the darkest days of World War II (1940, while Britten was safely in America) there’s no specific program (despite Mr. Kruger’s attempt to suggest one in the notes) for the composer’s Sinfonia da Requiem. This is a furious performance that opens with an inexorably paced Lacrymosa that’s pulsing and powerful. Kalmar and the orchestra push the envelope in the terrifying Dies Irae, a Shostakovich-like scherzo that features some of Britten’s most energized orchestral writing. The fury of the opening movements makes the closing Requiem Aeternam all the more moving. Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4 is fueled by big orchestra adrenalin but is also a tightly constructed work that owes much to the classical symphonic form. The Oregon Symphony brings an edgy muscularity to this music, especially in the explosive opening movement and searing scherzo. It’s also a delight it is to hear an American orchestra program a Vaughan Williams symphony, a composer whose symphonies are shamefully rare in American concert halls.

The recording was made at a live concert and there are some ever-so-audible audience sounds, but the overall sound quality is wonderfully realistic and just how you would hear it in the hall. With recordings like this, the future of the American orchestra is promising indeed.

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