Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Special: Divine Redeemer

Church of the Gesù, Milwaukee
Any album covering Bach to the twentieth century can seem riskily ambitious. But Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs offer an engaging recital of sacred music for voice and organ, demonstrating the diversity of this repertoire. The vast spaces of Milwaukee's Church of the Gesù create resonances that were occasionally odd, to my ear, but this may be in part because because I expect to hear these pieces performed in different spaces from each other. Also, the church appears to be much bigger not only than that of the average parish, but than that of the average parish with a pipe organ. Seeing the album cover blazoned with the names of composers from four centuries and multiple traditions, I wondered about the cohesion of the disc. In the event, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of unfamiliar works alongside pieces frequently performed, if more seldom with this high level of musicianship.

The organization of the album is roughly chronological, with Handel's setting of Dryden's Song for St. Cecilia's Day a sort of postscript to round things out. This results in J.S. Bach's "Bist du bei mir" leading off. This is instantly immersive. It's such a glorious piece that, performed well, as here, it can't fail to be the highlight of the disc, in my view. The disc's chief value, however, is arguably found in its showcasing of more rarely heard works. It's also, notably, a treat for lovers of the organ repertoire, as well as of vocal music. Paul Jacobs' playing is both sensitive and deliciously accomplished (and the booklet includes details on the organ used, which is a thing of beauty. The particularly lush French works showcase it well, not only the titular Gounod (performed in English) and Franck's "Panis angelicus," but Nadia Boulanger's haunting Trois Pièces Pour Orgue. These, alongside Lili Boulanger's plangent, yearning setting of the "Pie Jesu," form the centerpiece of the album. Together with the Bach, they were the pieces I found myself revisiting.

Puccini's "Salve Regina," following, is instantly recognizable. As elsewhere, Brewer's absolute lack of sentimentalizing was much appreciated by me! Her musicianship throughout I found both intelligent and passionate. I presume, Gentle Readers, that it would be supererogatory for me to mention the brilliance and power of her voice; suffice it to say, she is in fine form. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the set of Wolf songs are a particularly good fit for the Strauss specialist. When weird German late-romanticism meets sacred music, amazing things happen. Finding Wolf's distinctive sensibilities applied to a genre very different than that of the Lied was for me a fascinating discovery. A toccata and fugue from Max Reger (!) were similarly unexpected. Concluding with Handel's setting of a hymn praising the patron saint of music was an apt enough choice, but I found myself wishing that the program might have been still further extended chronologically. Perhaps sacred works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries will be added into the recital program with which Brewer is traveling?

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