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CD Reviews: Voices speak through orchestral instruments in Bruce Haynes' New Brandenburgs, Henryk Górecki collection

By John Terauds on June 5, 2012

Bande Montréal Baroque and Eric Milne recording their new album at the Church of St Augustin-de-Mirabel last year.

Two new albums speak directly — and very differently — to how the human voice can be expressed through orchestral instruments:

BANDE MONTREAL BAROQUE
Nouveaux “Brandebourgeous” Reconstitution/Reconstruction (ATMA Classique)

Earlier this year, we needed to pity Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov as he was attacked for quoting other composers’ music in his own. If we only look back two to three centuries, we find composers borrowing, quoting and parodying themselves and each other — proving that imitation once was the sincerest form of flattery.

University of Montreal Early Music specialist Bruce Haynes, who died a year ago, took the catholic view when he scoured 13 of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas, the Mass in G minor and Concerto for 3 Harpsichords in D minor for material he could adapt into a set of six concertos in the style of the six original Brandenburgs.

But it’s best to not think of the Brandenburgs at all while listening to this recording made by Eric Milnes and the period-instrument Bande Montréal Baroque, because it only serves to get in the way of what is an excellent display of the flexibility and adaptability of Bach’s music, of Haynes’ careful scholarship and craft, and of the elegance with which these capable Montrealers — including Haynes’ widow, gamba master Susie Napper — turned it into glorious sound only a couple of weeks after his death.

I also would suggest it best to think of these pieces as concerti grossi (meaning there is more than one solo instrument featured in each piece) or concertante (where the metaphorical spotlight shifts between individuals and groupings and the whole orchestra).

Five of the six “new” concertos follow a striaightforward fast-slow-fast, three-movement structure in related keys.

If you’re familiar with Bach’s cantatas, you can play a game with yourself and your Baroque-geek friends, guessing which piece each movement of each “New Brandenburg” has been swiped from. The music is very different when it’s played, not sung, mainly because there is a flexible articulation to the human voice that even the most dexterous fingers and virtuosic lips can’t duplicate, but nowhere on this album do I get the impression that I’m being short-changed.

The real pleasure comes from simply sitting back and enjoying the music.

For all the details and audio samples, click here.

ANTONI WIT/WARSAW PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Górecki, Concerto-Cantata (Naxos)

Late Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) was one of the few whose work managed to break out into mainstream concert and recorded repertoire. Most people probably know and love his darker and more reflective work, where instruments and voice slide by each other in brooding alternations of consonance and dissonance.

On this disc, though, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Polish conductor Antoni Wit include works that alternate peace with tumult. The faster, louder pieces charge ahead with mad, obsessive insistence.

The album, which was recorded over multiple sessions at Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall last year, features the world-premiere recording of Concerto-Cantata, Op. 65, from 1992. The four-movement piece — my favourite on this CD — gives the soloist’s job to a flute (the virtuosic and widely expressive Carol Wincenc), which frequently engages in dialogue with other solo instruments in the orchestra. The third-movement Concertino is the liveliest, full of echoes of Stravinsky.

The whimsically titled Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, Op. 66, dates from the following year. It assigns the main solo role to the piano — played by the composer’s daughter Anna Górecka. She is also the soloist in a piano version of Górecki’s 1980 Harpsichord Concerto, amped up because of the greater power of the modern instrument.

The album closes with Three Dances, Op. 34, from 1973, that beg to be snapped up by an imaginative choreographer.

With a snap of his baton, Wit is able to switch the orchestra from a quiet, ember-like glow to sharp, hard-charging bonfire. It’s great work.

For all the details and audio samples, click here.

John Terauds

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