BENNETT: The Mines of Sulphur
MacMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross. On the Annunciation
of the Blessed Virgin. Te Deum.
GÓRECKI: Symphony No. 3. Canticum Graduum, Op. 27.
Richard Rodney Bennett's rather macabre opera Mines of Sulplhur was warmly greeted when premiered in 1965 in London with Colin Davis conducting and enjoyed considerable success. For whatever reason, it disappeared from the opera world until a recent major production by Glimmerglass Opera which was highly praised and can be heard by all via this Chandos issue. Bennett has a particular affinity for the opera as it takes place in West County where he was born in 1936. The libretto by Beverley Cross takes place in an old rotting manor where the old landowner Braxton keeps the gypsy girl Rosalind who manages to escape and returns with the military deserter Bocconnion and the tramp Tovey to rob and kill Braxton. Then a theater troup arrives looking for shelter and agrees to perform as payment for their keep, and during this play within a play the troupe reveals they know of Boconnion's crimes. The opera ends with the impending demise of all and a vain prayer to God for mercy. The 12-tone technique is effectively used to create the dark brooding atmosphere of the plot. The composer said there could not be a better production of his opera either dramatically or musically than this one presented by Glimmerglass Opera. The Chandos sound is what one would expect, vividly recreating the atmosphere of a staged production. A complete libretto is provided in English, French and German. I wish the label had instead released on SACD some of their other spectacular recordings (Arnold symphonies, for example), but perhaps eventually these quality recordings will show up in the new format.
Stephen Layton and his first-class Polyphoney chorus can be heard on this fine new Hyperion issue of music of youngish (b. 1959) British composer James McMillan. The major work is his setting of Seven Last Words from the Cross, a 47-minute work which was commissioned by the BBC in 1994 for television presentation. On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin followed in 1997, and Te Deum was composed in 2001 to mark the occasion of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Influenced by works of Shostakovich and, in particular, Messiaen, MacMillan's choral writing is distinct and powerful. Mark Brown produced these recordings in two venues: St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Gardens Suburb, April 1/2, 2004 (Seven Last Words), and Temple Church in London, July 30, 2003. The chorus is in front , with a sonic picture that well captures church acoustics, and low organ notes are impressive. Complete texts are provided in English, French and German.
The record world was pleasantly surprised in 1992 when Nonesuch's recording of Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta directed by David Zinman became one of the best-selling classical CDs of the year. Since that time, a number of others recordings have appeared but none finer than this Näive issue which offers not only the symphony, but Canticum Graduum. Gorecki's brooding "symphony of sorrowful songs," contains three sombre movements in each of the soprano soloist is heard singing of a woman's response to death. The mass appeal of this work has always eluded me, but it sounds better than ever in this fine new recording which beautifully captures the quiet string sonorities so important in it. It is doubtful admirers of the symphony will also enjoy Canticum Graduum. This was composed in 1969, seven years before the symphony. It begins and ends softly with rising and falling masses of dissonant sound that most will find grating to the ear.
R.E.B. (February 2006)