Listening During Covid, Part 14: Pleasures and Treasures

By Ralph P. Locke

Music of Machaut, the teenaged Mozart, and three vibrant American composers, plus a remarkable book about Charles Ives and his works.

Guillaume de Machaut, Remède de Fortune (A Remedy for Fortune). Selected vocal and instrumental works, sung and performed by Blue Heron and Les Délices. Blue Heron BHCD 1012—73 minutes.

Maestrino Mozart. (Arias written by Mozart between the ages of 11 and 16 years.) Marie-Ève Munger, soprano, with Les Boréades de Montréal, cond. Philippe Bourque. ATMA Classique ACD2 2815—64 minutes.

MoonStrike: chamber works by Jennifer Higdon, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Pierre Jalbert. Azica ACD-71352—60 minutes.

Click here to purchase the Machaut, Mozart, or Apollo Chamber Players recordings.

Well, I never thought I’d be reaching Part 14 of this series. But I, like no doubt other music lovers my age (I’m turning 74), am still not back to attending indoor concerts. So my new musical experiences and encounters tend to be through recordings, or occasionally TV (Met telecasts), computer screen, or radio.

Among the CDs recently sent to me for review are three from diverse places in North America: the Boston area, Houston, and Montréal.

The first consists entirely of works by the medieval poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (about whom more in a moment). It was recorded during two concerts in 2019 at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. The performers include four male singers from the Boston-based early-music ensemble Blue Heron and two members of the Cleveland-based early-music ensemble Les Délices (led, respectively, by Scott Metcalfe and Debra Nagy; Metcalfe is a member of both organizations).

I had heard about the award that Blue Heron, together with musicologist Jessie Ann Owens, won from the American Musicological Society for a 2-CD album of Renaissance motets by Cipriano de Rore (ca. 1515-65). The group has recorded other Renaissance music, including the complete songs of Johannes Ockeghem (2 CDs) and 5 CDs of music from Canterbury Cathedral’s Peterhouse Partbooks (ca. 1540). But I only recently realized that they have recorded earlier music as well, including a Guillaume Du Fay CD and A 14th-Century Salmagundi.

Machaut (ca. 1300-77) is known to students of music history as a major composer of early polyphony (pieces for several different musical lines at once), though he also wrote many monophonic pieces as well (sung by one voice, or by several in unison). He was at least as important, at the time, as a poet. Thus it is appropriate that the CD launches with a lovely, clear reading (by Metcalfe) of the first two dozen lines of Machaut’s immensely long poetic work Remède de fortune. These lines advise young people to take tasks seriously and respect their masters.

The remaining 17 tracks are not poetic readings but musical numbers and include the seven that are included, fully notated, in the multiple, elegantly copied Remède manuscripts. Most of these numbers are sung by one or more of the four singers from Blue Heron, accompanied by Metcalfe or Nagy (or, sometimes, by baritone Charles Weaver, now not singing but playing the lute). The various vocal numbers include motets, ballades, and the first Kyrie from Machaut’s famous Messe de Nostre Dame (the first surviving setting of all the “ordinary”—i.e., unchanging—prayer texts in the Mass liturgy). Other numbers, including three virelais and one of the ballades—are given out only on instruments.

The instruments here are as mellifluous as the men’s singing voices. I took particular pleasure in the sounds of Nagy’s douçaine—an early and higher-pitched form of what would become the bassoon, but here it sounds like the gentlest saxophone ever.

Mozart was a genius, of course, and wrote better music at the ages of 11 to 16 than many an adult then or since. (Well, he’s had an occasional challenger. Rossini’s six sonatas for string ensemble, still widely loved today, were apparently composed when he was 12.) French-Canadian soprano Marie-Ève Munger has now put together an album of twelve arias from operas by the young marvel, including three for the character Aspasia from Mitridate, rè di Ponto, K. 87 (1770, when Mozart was 13). I was amazed to note the young Mozart’s command of phrase structure in the melodic line and orchestral figuration in the accompaniment, and the close attention to the meaning and syntactical weight of a given character’s sung words. The arias from comic operas, in particular, have a tuneful lilt that would blossom all the more when he reached his 20s, as in The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782).

Munger has an exquisite control of her light and clear soprano voice, and she responds keenly to the words and to shifts in harmony. I loved her singing as the young Protestant countess Isabelle in Ferdinand Hérold’s long-beloved Le Pré aux clercs (1832) and would say that she is among the most accomplished coloratura sopranos around right now. And among the best educated and most literate: she wrote the detailed and perceptive booklet-essay, which explicates some of the notable features of each of the arias (and the often intense recitatives that precede many of them).

The period-instrument orchestra Les Boréades plays with precision, grace, and spirit. The orchestra is presumably named after Rameau’s opera of that name. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind, and of course Canadians know the north wind well.

Our third CD brings us into our own day, with performances from the Houston-based string quartet that calls itself Apollo Chamber Players. The ACP’s tag-phrase is “Globally Inspired Music.” Some years ago ACP decided to commission, perform, and record twenty “multicultural” pieces by the year 2020 (“20 x 2020”). Here are three of the results.

Jennifer Higdon is one of the country’s most frequently performed living composers, in large part because of a single piece: the brightly colored tone poem blue cathedral (1999). With In the Shadow of the Mountain she offers what seems like another tone poem, but for string quartet, based on material from her much-acclaimed opera Cold Mountain (2015). That opera (like its source, the 1997 National Book Award-winning Charles Frazier novel, which also led to the much-acclaimed 2003 film directed by Anthony Minghella) takes place in North Carolina, in a region not very far from Seymour, Tennessee, where Higdon spent much of her childhood. Her piece resonates, often quietly, with the fiddle music of the region. It is in a single continuous movement, alternatingly freely between meditative music and faster, even frenzied stuff.

The frequent use of diatonic melodies, sometimes with a strong modal tinge, reminded me at times of some of Dvořák’s American works, and also of Charles Martin Loeffler’s exquisitely crafted Music for Four Stringed Instruments (1917, based on Gregorian-chant melodies). I found that Higdon’s piece rewarded close attention, not least to the frequent shifts in texture, including occasional solos, here eloquently put forth. It has made me eager to get to know the opera (which I see is available in a recording on the Pentatone label, and features the operatic superstars Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard).

Jerod Tate is a pianist and composer who sometimes also uses a middle name: Impichchaachaaha’ (meaning “high corncrib,” in the Chickasaw language). Born in Oklahoma and a citizen of the Chickasaw nation, he studied piano and composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He frequently integrates elements of traditional American Indian (his preferred term) culture into his compositions and has done much to encourage young musicians of American Indian ancestry to do the same.

Tate’s MoonStrike (2019) is an enormously effective piece for narrator and string quartet, a bit like a slimmed-down Peter and the Wolf. As in that work, animals are the main characters here, except that they are interacting with the moon: giving it away, rolling it down a hill, taking its place (or refusing to), and stealing it and holding it for ransom. The animals, including a, yes, wily coyote and a ravenous Raven, seem to embody various human traits. The tale-snippets come from various American Indian legends (not specified in the album notes). They have been shaped into three coherent and consistently intriguing movements by the composer and are here read by John Herrington, himself a person of Chickasaw heritage. Herrington is renowned as the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space (the shuttle Endeavor, 2002). Herrington reads the stories clearly, with effective touches of humor and gravity.

Tate punctuates or accompanies Herrington’s readings with a wide range of descriptive phrases from the four stringed instruments. Some of the music is based on traditional Native American songs. The work begins and ends with an arrangement of a Calusa Corn Dance in intriguing septuple meter (sounding a bit like a Bulgarian dance by Bartók or certain pieces by Leonard Bernstein). MoonStrike is a “keeper”—perfect for schoolchildren, while having enough freshness to keep more experienced listeners intrigued.

The disc closes with L’esprit du Nord (Spirit of the North; 2019) by Pierre Jalbert, a composer who grew up in northern Vermont in a family of Québécois origin. Here he is inspired explicitly by the musical traditions of French Canada. I’d say, on the basis of this one piece, that Jalbert, who studied with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania (as did Higdon), is enormously gifted.

The work is in three movements, “Chanson de Lisette,” “Cantique,” and “Fiddle Dance.” The second and third movements are each preceded by a field recording whose material is then picked up and varied by the quartet. (I couldn’t figure out by ear the words of the canticle that the woman is singing before movement 2.) Jalbert finds fresh ways of keeping a melodic line going while varying the figuration above, below, and around it, and intensifying it with surprising chordal buttressing and commentary.

These three CDs, taken together, remind us that lively music making—including new compositions, and rediscoveries from ages past—continues to go on here on the North American continent, often by smallish but enormously skillful groups.

And let me praise all three record companies: the full booklet for each of the recordings is available for free download. (Click on the three links just above my first sentence.) So, if you’re streaming the music from, say, Spotify, you can be as well informed as if you had purchased the CD. This is a model that all responsible record companies should follow. Few do.

A postlude for readers: Since I’ve been speaking above about music making in North America, I would like to draw attention to a book that I have just gotten to know, though it came out more than a year ago: J. Peter Burkholder’s Listening to Charles Ives: Variations on His America (Amadeus Press, 2021). This is an astute and inventive book, intended for people who love music of any kind but may not be able to read musical notation. The chapters trace Ives’s life and musical career (and non-career, because he ended up making his living in the insurance business, while sometimes still composing—or tinkering with his earlier works).

Some of the chapters focus on topics, such as Ives’s various multiple works that invoke American history and holidays. Most striking are the passages of musical description, some of which become extremely colorful and image-laden (or quasi-auditory: rhythms are sometimes written out: DUM-didda dut-dut). Multi-page sections are written in an imaginative manner, putting the reader at a particular concert: “You glance at your program . . . and you wonder what to expect.”

Burkholder is perhaps the most prominent Ives authority living today, but he proves himself to be more than that: a patient and resourceful tour guide for people wondering what classical music (Western art music, or whatever one calls it) might have to offer. And, at $36, it’s an astonishing bargain.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Bilbao (Spain), and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).

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