Performing Arts

These CDs will carry classical music lovers through the summer

Matthew Christopher Shepard and his Te Deum ensemble have released a stellar version of Brahms German Requiem.
Matthew Christopher Shepard and his Te Deum ensemble have released a stellar version of Brahms German Requiem. Mark McDonald Photography

Now is a fine time to sample some of the latest classical music CDs as the live performance schedule slows for the summer. Here are a few suggestions:

Rameau: ‘Le Temple de la Gloire’

Nicholas McGegan conducts the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale (Philharmonia Baroque Productions)

It has always been a mystery to me why French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is not as well known and loved as Baroque composers like Bach and Vivaldi. He wrote some of the most audience-friendly music of the Baroque era, with tuneful, memorable melodies that run the gamut from ecstatic joy to heart-breaking romanticism and delightful toe-tapping dances.

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Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale have just released a recording of an opera that is a perfect example of Rameau’s genius. “Le Temple de la Gloire” (“The Temple of Glory”) was first performed in 1745 at Versailles to celebrate the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy and features a libretto by none other than Voltaire.

Rameau’s operas are full of shepherds, shepherdesses and masques, which I think of as Baroque vaudeville. They’re short tableaux that recount some mythological tale, as in “Temple of Glory,” where the masques relate how Envy and her minions attempt to destroy the Temple of Glory but are foiled by Apollo, the Muses, various gods like Bacchus and finally the Roman Emperor Trajan.

McGegan, who frequently serves as a guest conductor for the Kansas City Symphony, draws a lively, juicy sound from his ensemble that is compelling from beginning to end. The only drawback is that this is a live recording, so the music is occasionally interrupted by applause. But it’s easy to overlook this minor irritation when the music is as good as this. For summertime listening, it doesn’t get any better.

Pavel Chesnokov: ‘Teach Me Thy Statutes’

Vladimir Gorbik conducts the PATRAM Institute Male Choir (Reference Recordings)

In the past decade or so, choral music lovers in the West have been discovering the riches of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers have always been beloved by audiences and performers, but in recent years musical horizons have been expanded with recordings of Alexander Grechaninov, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Georgy Sviridov and now Pavel Chesnokov.

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The PATRAM Institute Male Choir conducted by Vladimir Gorbik has just released a recording of Chesnokov’s music, and it’s breathtaking.

Chesnokov was born in a small Russian village 1877, but his musical genius led him to Moscow, where he graduated from the Moscow Synodal School of church singing with a gold medal. He went on to conduct church choirs around Moscow and lead summer music courses in St. Petersburg, all while composing his unique and mystical music.

He continued to compose and conduct after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 until church music was finally banned in 1928. He died of a heart attack and malnutrition in war-torn Moscow in 1944 while he was standing in a bread line.

Many thanks to Reference Recordings (the Kansas City Symphony’s record label) for bringing this unearthly beautiful music out of obscurity for the world to enjoy. It’s a Super Audio hybrid recording, so if you have a Super Audio player, you will really be blown away by the power and profundity of this impressive disc recorded in churches at the Saratov Orthodox Theological Seminary in Russia.

Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Piano Concerto, Oboe Concerto, Flos Campi

Peter Oundjian conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Chandos)

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote two of the most popular classical works of the 20th century. Unfortunately, many people are only familiar with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Lark Ascending. But a new recording from Chandos will introduce casual listeners to other gems by the pastoral composer, and serious Vaughan Williams fans will find the excellent performances and sonics make it a worthy purchase.

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The CD includes the sublime Serenade to Music. Vaughan Williams’ setting of text from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” made Rachmaninoff weep when he heard it at its first performance.

There are also two concertos, one for oboe and one for piano. The oboe concerto is Vaughan Williams at his pastoral best. It will make you feel like you’re watching the clouds drift by as you lie beside a burbling brook. The piano concerto is an example of Vaughan Williams’ more modernist music, and Flos Campi (Flower of the Field) is a summer idyll set to the words of the Song of Solomon.

This is another hybrid Super Audio recording that highlights all of the music’s felicitous details. It’s a wonderful addition to the Vaughan Williams discography and another perfect disc for summer listening.

Brahms: A German Requiem

Matthew Christopher Shepard conducts Te Deum with pianists Jan Kraybill and Elisa Bickers (Centaur)

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Brahms’ German Requiem “could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.” I must confess that for years I shared that estimation.

No matter how much my more musically savvy friends tried to point out its greatness, Brahms’ famous choral work has always struck me as a torpid affair with orchestral textures as thick as molasses. Getting through a complete performance without dozing off was always a struggle.

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But Centaur has released a recording of the Brahms German Requiem with Kansas City’s Te Deum ensemble that is making me re-evaluate my opinion. Matthew Christopher Shepard conducts the London version of the work, which, first of all, is sung in English, but more importantly, is accompanied by two pianos rather than full orchestra.

It seems to me the Requiem greatly benefits from the two piano version. It has a clarity that brings the text into much higher relief and, frankly, is just more listenable. Two of Kansas City’s finest organists, Jan Kraybill and Elisa Bickers, are the pianists, and they do a splendid job.

The movement “Behold all flesh is as the grass” is especially powerful, with Kraybill and Bickers achieving an orchestral power and sonority that accentuates rather than muddies the text. All the polyphony is clear as a bell and, to this obtuse listener, it was as though I were hearing the work for the first time.

So if you’re sunbathing and sipping a piña colada but also want to contemplate your mortality, stick in your earbuds and give this sonically superb recording a listen. It’s always good to be reminded that “all flesh is as grass” before you start enjoying yourself too much.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.

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