Leiviska: Orchestral Works Vol. 1
Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Dalia Stasevska, conductor (Bis)
Earlier this year, Bis, the essential Swedish label that has brought us Osmo Vanska’s Beethoven, Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach and every score that Jean Sibelius ever wrote, celebrated its 50th anniversary by announcing that it had sold itself to Apple. Coming not long after Universal had acquired Hyperion, as well as a significant stake in the parent company of Harmonia Mundi, the news felt grim. Those labels had not just been independent in ownership, but also independent in spirit.
Perhaps all is not yet lost, for this remarkable album finds Bis still doing what it has always done best: unearthing an obscure Scandinavian whose compositions are well worth hearing.
Helvi Leiviska (1902-82) was the leading Finnish female composer of her day, though for much of her life she worked as a librarian at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. “She belongs neither in modernism nor Neo-Classicism,” the liner notes for this album say. She wrote three symphonies, of which the troubled, turbulent, not quite tragic Second (1954) is the main work here.
Of the rest, I have been particularly taken with “Kehtolaulu,” a dark little lullaby from a late-1930s suite based on her score for Nyrki Tapiovaara’s experimental film “Juha.” Dalia Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony give everything their all. DAVID ALLEN
Works by Louis Wayne Ballard
Fort Smith Symphony; John Jeter, conductor (Naxos)
The conductor John Jeter could be categorized as an angelic force for overlooked American music. In his past albums for Naxos, he has investigated the woefully underplayed symphonies of William Grant Still and has contributed to the boom of interest in Florence Price.
Here, he and his Fort Smith Symphony are back for an invaluable hour in the company of the Native American composer Louis Wayne Ballard, whose music has yet to receive substantial interest from record labels. The four works on this set are all world premiere recordings, and they suggest that additional recordings are worth producing.
The first three movements from “Scenes From Indian Life,” written in 1963, have an unassuming playfulness. (The fourth movement, appended in 1994, takes on a graver cast.) But the longer pieces are even more impressive. Selections from Ballard’s ballet “The Four Moons” could pair well with Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” suite. The tone-poem writing of Ballard’s Fantasy Aborigine No. 3, “Kokopelli” — with its various dances influenced by Shawnee, Choctaw, Osage and Cherokee tribes — could lend an American air to an orchestral program featuring music by Strauss.
The singing wind, brass and string lines threaded throughout his “Devil’s Promenande” are captivating, too. While the playing here is persuasive as per usual, I also came away from this album hoping to hear Ballard’s music taken up by orchestras far and wide. SETH COLTER WALLS
Chamber Choir Ireland; Paul Hillier, director; Esposito Quartet (Louth Contemporary Music Society)
All three works on this movingly serene album are worth hearing, but one stands apart: “The City, Full of People.” Cassandra Miller — taking earlier music as her material, as she often does — transcribed herself singing a bit of Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century setting of lines from Lamentations. She then expanded the transcription into a score for 16 singers, divided into six groups meant to surround an audience in performance.
The trajectory is affecting: from the all-male vocal ensembles Tallis would have known, to a woman’s private meditation on his music, to her translation of it for a mixed-gender choir today, able to come together after a pandemic that isolated us all. On its journey with Miller, Tallis’s somber austerity has been gently blurred, taking on a circling, overlapping, dreamlike melancholy — and a surprising joy — that partakes of both hovering light and the earthiness of human voices.
Its companions are Laurence Crane’s spare, patient String Quartet No. 2, played by the Esposito Quartet, and Linda Catlin Smith’s “Folio,” luminous choral music to fragments of Emily Dickinson (like the Miller, sung by the superb Chamber Choir Ireland under Paul Hillier). “Folks’ Music” is a credit to Eamonn Quinn and his Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland, which commissioned these works and created this superb album. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Messiaen: ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ and Murail: ‘Stalag VIIIA’
Het Collectief (Alpha Classics)
Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed while he was incarcerated in Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp, during World War II. A quietly luminous vision of texts from Revelation, the work was conceived at a moment when the collapse of time and history may not have seemed far-off.
The quartet inspired Messiaen’s student Tristan Murail, a founder of spectralism, to write “Stalag VIIIA” (2018). Intended as a prelude to the Messiaen, it borrows overtone-saturated chords from the older composer and generates from them an icy atmosphere that alludes not only to the earlier work’s immutable subject matter, but also to the frigid conditions of its premiere. In this deeply attentive performance by the Belgian ensemble Het Collectief, Murail’s music seems to unspool in one long frozen breath, leading directly, and effectively, to the first notes of Messiaen’s quartet.
As for that piece, the Het Collectief players give a performance that illustrates the extent to which this once-difficult music now feels like core repertoire. If the group falls just short of the clairvoyance of the still-unsurpassed Tashi recording from the mid-1970s, they do a superb job emphasizing the work’s dance rhythms. And the “Abyss of the Birds” clarinet solo, played by Julien Hervé, is utterly riveting. DAVID WEININGER
Mascagni: ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’
Balthasar Neumann Choir and Orchestra; Thomas Hengelbrock, conductor (Prospero)
Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” a bold, stirringly paced work that came to define verismo opera, never made it to the stage the way he wrote it.
Eager to win the competition to which he had submitted his one-act opera, Mascagni incorporated feedback from the jurors, who wanted cuts, and the premiere’s star singers, who wanted their parts lowered.
For a concert performance last year in Germany, the conductor Thomas Hengelbrock restored much of the original material. The brindisi, propelled by the chorus’s reinstated contrapuntal passages, swirls with heady presentiment ahead of Turiddu’s murder. The shift upward into A major for Santuzza’s prayer makes it shine. But not every restoration works: Alfio’s entrance aria does not need to be any longer.
Carolina López Moreno, a true “soprano Santuzza,” radiates a wounded, tremulous innocence as a peasant girl ruined and pushed aside by her lover, and her desperation carries her to a shattering high C sharp in the prayer. The tenor Giorgio Berrugi, as Turiddu, weaves a sobbing tone into his broad phrases but struggles when his voice comes under pressure. The beautifully prepared Balthasar Neumann Choir emits its sound in sheets of light that suit the opera’s Easter service better than its vivacious drinking song.
Hengelbrock argues a solid case for revisiting the formal design of such an influential work, even if he leaves open the question of whether it succeeded in spite of these changes or because of them. OUSSAMA ZAHR