Music

Classical music | CD & DVD Reviews

Schumann to Schubert and Bach again

Gregory Spears: Requiem

GREGORY SPEARS: “Requiem’’ (New Amsterdam, CD) Gregory Spears’s “Requiem’’ is some of the most beautifully unsettling music to appear in recent memory. Originally commissioned to accompany a dance by choreographer Christopher Williams, the piece has a hybrid text that mixes bits of the standard Latin Requiem sequence with poems in French and the Celtic language of Breton.

It’s part fairy tale, part prayer for the dead. The music is a fusion as well. Scored for an unusual instrumental ensemble - recorder, chimes, harps, organ, and viola - and six voices, the music sounds like a Renaissance madrigal remixed for the postminimalist age.

The vocal lines swirl like high-flying birds - they don’t harmonize so much as spin perilously in and out of each other’s orbit. The harmonies in the instrumental ensemble move slowly, close to stasis, as if trying to drag the voices out of the ether and down to earth.

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It’s hard to know what to call this music, though it must be a challenge to perform, and the musicians on this recording do exemplary work. It is harder still to explain the cold shiver it induces.

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Perhaps it’s due to all the space in the music. “Requiem’’ does not work by overwhelming a listener; a simple chord from a harp, a piercing entrance by a soprano, or a simple change from major to minor each carry an outsize emotional charge.

Whatever the secret, do not be surprised if its seemingly simple songs about swans, witches, and death remain in your memory to haunt your dreams. DAVID WEININGER

SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4; MAHLER: ‘‘Das Lied von der Erde’’

Kurt Sanderling;

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (ICA Classics, DVD)

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The difference between Kurt Sanderling and Erich Leinsdorf is black-and-white — or it would be if this ICA Classics DVD weren’t in color. On the podium, Sanderling (who died in September, two days short of his 99th birthday) resembles a deftly dancing walrus — Pierre Monteux without the mustache. He slashes away with his baton as if he were auditioning for an Errol Flynn movie. This Schumann Fourth (from 1988) opens with a kind of sigh, and it has more sweep than Leinsdorf’s reading, and more of a sense of tension and release. Yet it doesn’t necessarily build to a bigger effect.

What really distinguishes this release from ICA’s Leinsdorf DVD is the camera, which tries to focus on every orchestral detail. That can be distracting, though it pays dividends in Mahler’s ‘‘Das Lied von der Erde’’ (also from 1988), particularly when it’s spotlighting the trumpet in ‘‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’’ or the oboe in ‘‘Der Einsame im Herbst’’ or the English horn in ‘‘Der Abschied.’’

There are many beautiful details here, like the orchestra’s pitter- patter in ‘‘Von der Jugend,’’ and the tenor, John Mitchinson, is a jowly bear of a singer who lights up his drinking songs with easy, good-natured grace. But the mezzo-soprano, Carolyn Watkinson, is closed, heavy, and unsmiling (she does open up in ‘‘Der Abschied’’), and Sanderling’s interpretation, though sensitive, doesn’t reveal any new Mahler worlds. JEFFREY GANTZ

BACH & FRIENDS

(Michael Lawrence Films, DVD)

If you didn’t already believe that Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest composer who ever wrote on planet Earth, you probably will after viewing this loving, informative, and insightful documentary.

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Director Michael Lawrence (he also edited and produced) conducted in-depth and surprisingly intimate interviews with an impressive array of Bach interpreters: violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn; composer Philip Glass; pianists Mike Hawley and Simone Dinnerstein; cellists Matt Haimovitz and Zuill Bailey; the Emerson Quartet; and jazz musician Bobby McFerrin, to name a few. The conversations appear in accessible bite-size pieces, artfully interspersed with intense excerpts of excellent sound quality from the speakers’ performances. The editing has a natural, lively rhythm — wisely Lawrence doesn’t use a narrator — that avoids platitudes and poetically illustrates the musicians’ ideas.

One dominant theme is that Bach was not only a composer, but also an engineer, mathematician, and scientist completely aware of the technical capabilities of the music and instruments of his day. Many marvel at Bach’s astounding rate of productivity, even under frequently trying personal circumstances; Glass describes him as a fountain of musical ideas that ‘‘arrived in his mind complete.’’ Among the musical highlights is Bell’s spiritual performance of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2. Included is a bonus DVD with complete performances of works heard in part in the documentary. HARLOW ROBINSON

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4; WAGNER: Good Friday Music from ‘‘Parsifal’’

Erich Leinsdorf; Boston Symphony Orchestra (ICA Classics, DVD)

Has there ever been a conductor stranger to watch than Erich Leinsdorf? He’s Mr. Minimal on the podium, and Mr. Phlegmatic, and Mr. Eternally Perplexed. He can look at his players as if they were Professor Hill’s kids from ‘‘The Music Man’’ and he were trying not to listen. When he holds his elbows out and lets his wrists and hands dangle, he’s like a clockwork doll. There are times on this black-and-white ICA Classics DVD when his hands seem to be doing the fish.

The Schubert and Schumann symphonies were shot in Sanders Theatre in 1963 and 1962, respectively, back when the BSO was a regular visitor to Harvard; the Good FridayMusic from Wagner’s ‘‘Parsifal’’ was shot in 1964 at Symphony Hall. Conducting with no baton and no score, Leinsdorf builds these performances as if he were working with LEGO blocks: some precision oboe here, some pellucid counterpoint there. You’re reminded that he was born in Vienna during the rise of the Second Viennese School; these are clear-headed readings right out of the Wiener Werkstätte. The one oddity is the funereal tempo for the second movement of the Schumann, which is marked ‘‘Romanze.’’ Yet it builds into something like passion. And Leinsdorf always leaves you wondering whether what he has created is less than the sum of its parts or more.

The Good Friday Music seems an afterthought. Leinsdorf was a renowned Wagnerian who conducted ‘‘Parsifal’’ 19 times at the Met, but this performance has no portent, only reverence.

J.G.