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Vasks, Poulenc and 17th Century Italian Choral Music, with some shorter notes Vasks: Choral Music; Poulenc: Figure Humaine; Cappella Figuralis; Purcell: Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet; Gurdjieff/Hartmann; Bacewicz: Eva Kupiec. (PGW)


The Latvian Radio Choir made a profound and indelible impression at the Huddersfield Festival 2000, when they brought to England powerful scores by leading composers of their troubled country, notably Psalm 15 and At the edge of the earth by Maija Einfelde and the scarifying intensity of Litene by Peteris Vasks, commemorating a particularly horrifying event in the ruthless exercise of power by the occupying Soviets. Of three outstanding choral CDs amongst those received during last month, taken in reverse chronological order, BIS has a new Vasks CD of this fastidious composer, whose choral music employs a range of expressive techniques from 'white diatonicism' to aleatorism. Litene is a small village where there was a massacre of Latvian army officers in 1941. Zemgale tells of an area of Latvia which suffered the most deportations in 1949. The quarter hour long Dona Nobis Pacem (1996) composed for this choir seeks peace for all mankind with maximal force and concentration. Recommended without reservation: BIS CD 1145.

Choral music of the mid-20th Century is displayed at its best in these two distinguished and distinctive CDs of Vasks and Poulenc, heard rewardingly in succession. Whereas Vasks is more obviously innovative, concentrating on underlying feeling, and with little in the way of syllabic word setting, Francis Poulenc's very personal idiom is tonal but instantly recognisable as his alone, often setting blocks of chords to bring out the words clearly and with emotional impact. He always sets important poets and Paul Éluard, represented here by Sept Chansons, Un Soir de Neige and the 1942 Figure Humaine, praised him for bringing out the lyrical qualities of his writing (poets are more often grudging towards composers). Figure Humaine, a vast cycle of 8 poems and one of Poulenc's finest works, was composed in Occupied France and prepared secretly by Liberation Day for performance by the BBC Chorus in London in March 1945, before the War had ended. The Parisian Choeur de Chamnbre Accentus (Laurence Equilbey) is superb, and superbly recorded in this very special CD (naïve V 4883).

Seventeenth Century Italian music has had an increasing revival during my time and is now so popular that people don't realise this was not always so; hard to recall how completely novel, and indeed peculiar, Monteverdi's Vespers sounded when I heard it as first (?) presented in UK, conducted by Walter Goehr (Alexander's father) at London's Westmenister Hall, probably soon after the same War commemorated worthily by Poulenc. In Channel Classics 17098, entitled Love & Lament, the soloist ensemble Cappella Figuralis, conductor Jos van Veldhoven, scores with its uniqueness of programming, accomplished team work and presentation. Its heart is four 17.C Lamenti, the popular Lamento della Ninfa of Monteverdi, Carissimi (the familiar tale of Jephtha's unfortunate oath) and lesser known examples of the genre by Mazzochi (David's for Saul and Jonathan), and Della Ciaia (The Virgin's lament), demonstrating that there is a wealth of wonderful music around and soon after that of Monteverdi. The laments are separated by solo Toccatas of the period by Frescobaldi, Kapsberger and Michelangelo Rossi, played respectively on harpsichord, organ and theorbo, each a characteristic instrument - you'll rarely hear a theorbo to better advantage. Quite astonishing is that of Rossi, who has some extraordinary chromatic passages which 'explore and then deliberately violate' the limits of mean-tone tuning, to exquisitely painful effect!

Received in the same batch, Channel Classics CCS 16998 Fantazia is less successful, though recorder players will surely want it. Purcell's marvellous Fantazias, throw-backs to the old contrapuntal stilo antico, really sound better on strings than on recorders, even those most expert players of the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, here mellow and beautiful but ultimately a little dull for hearing right through. Finally from Channel Classics is a real oddity, Thomas de Hartmann's Music for Gurdjieff's 39 Series, piano accompaniments for movement training and "harmonious simultaneous development of man's three brains". The booklet is lavishly illustrated with authentic historical documents and illustrations, many of which are published for the first time; for me, the music per se is much less fascinating - this is one for people interested in G. I. Gurdjieff's thinking and his Sacred Dances and Ritual Exercises with which Hartmann collaborated, played here by Wim van Dullemen on a double CD, CCS 16498. Full details of all these Channel Classics CDs and liner notes extracts can be found at Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69) is honoured as Warsaw's greatest female composer, but is elusive and not easy to place. From my occasional memories the world premiere release of her piano music probably does not represent her at her best - Richard Whitehouse lamented having missed her featured works at the Warsaw Festival. A lot of the pieces are short and probably intended for didactic purpose (Studies for Double Notes, Children's Suite, Sonatina etc). There is something of an early Lutoslawski quality, but it rarely rises to the distinctively memorable (Eva Kupiec Hänssler 10622).

Peter Grahame Woolf

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