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Comfort Music

While listening to music with an ear toward perfection, one can lose sight of the simple fact of sound's power to move the listener: to calm the enraged, comfort the suffering, to make one forget even for a brief time the travails of life. In times of personal crisis, people turn to music of all kinds, but for me it is historical music of the Christian liturgy that ends up in my ears. At such times, even while the critical ear is never really turned off, it seems proper just to thank the composers who wrote this music, the patrons who sponsored them, and the musicians whose voices bring it to our ears centuries later.

available at Amazon
Tudor City, New York Polyphony

(released on April 13, 2010)
Avie AV2186 | 62'51"

available at Amazon
Via Crucis, N. Rial, P. Jaroussky, Barbara Furtuna, L'Arpeggiata,
C. Pluhar

(released on April 20, 2010)
Virgin Classics 694577 0 | 70'35"

available at Amazon
Rachmaninov, Vespers, op. 37, Academy of Choral Art, V. Popov

(re-released on July 1, 2008)
Delos DE 3388 | 51'04"
The male vocal quartet New York Polyphony was founded only in 2006, and Tudor City is their second release on the Avie label, after a Christmas disc called I Sing the Birth. The selection is intriguing, motets by Byrd, Cornysh, Tye, Dunstable and William Lambe, a Magnificat setting by John Taverner, as well as selections from Tallis's Nine Tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter. These are juxtaposed with new pieces, in a style derived from historical polyphony of various kinds by Andrew Smith, a composer born in Liverpool who now lives in Oslo. Smith's most interesting work is Flos regalis, paired here with the medieval work that inspired it, the conductus setting the same text in the Worcester Fragments. The sound, captured in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine last summer (production by Malcolm Bruno), is ultra-resonant -- almost artificially so -- with all the ring and decay of that grand space. New York Polyphony is going on a European tour next month, shortly after which one of its members, baritone Scott Dispensa, will leave the group to join the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.

Jens mentioned Via Crucis, the new recording of sacred music for Holy Week led by Christina Pluhar. It is equal parts early music and "NPR music," with tinges of world music (traditional Corsican songs performed by the vocal quartet Barbara Furtuna), folk music (the obtrusive Renaissance Fair tinkle of hammered dulcimer in Pluhar's L'Arpeggiata ensemble), and Mediterranean jazz (gleaming lines given to the slender, sultry trumpet) sure to please the "Fresh Air" crowd. While the recording treads dangerously close to kitsch at times, it is an overall pleasing listen, the sincerity of its intent -- to reproduce something of the intensity of popular worship during Holy Week -- outweighing what could be seen as a lack of taste. The two lead singers go a long way to keeping the balance on the tasteful side of the equation: countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is a known entity, and the dulcet, laser-precise soprano Nuria Rial is a most welcome discovery.

My well-known aversion to the music of Rachmaninoff does not extend to his vocal music, and the Russian composer's op. 37 setting of the Orthodox Vespers and Vigil (or Matins) service is a long-time favorite. This recording by Moscow's Academy of Choral Art, under Victor Popov, may not be the best option, especially with a stellar recording having been released in recent years by Paul Hillier (praised highly by Jens a few years ago and by yours truly when it was re-released). The Popov disc is also a re-release of an even earlier recording that at times falls beneath the musical standards of intonation and sectional balance in Hillier's recording and clocks in a couple minutes shorter, due to an occasionally peppy rhythmic approach that is important to keep in mind if one assumes that Russian choral music should be always dirge-like in tempo. This performance is also infused with a full-throated Russian quality that is exactly what one needs to hear sometimes.

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