VELDHUIS: Paradiso (Oratorio)
Claron MacFadden, soprano (Beatrice); Tom Allen, tenor (Dante); Karel Gerritsma, sampler; Pulsatu, video; North Netherlands Concert Chooir; North Netherlands Orch/Alexander Liebreich, cond.
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5012 (F) (DDD) TT: (5 channel)

HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32. GRAINGER: The Warriors
Women's voices of the Monteverdi Choir; Philharmonia Orch/John Eliot Gardiner, cond.
DGG 471 634 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:15 (5 channel)

Paradiso is described as a large-scale multi-media work, "a video oratorio for soprano, tenor, sampler, female choir and orchestra," with text by Dante Alighieri and Jacob Ter Veldhuis." CD notes say Paradiso is a journey in search of beauty and harmony, of ecstasy and bliss, in which music and images are 'heavenly' in the literal sense of the word: a full-length audiovisual performance based on Dante's Divina Commedia. In reaction to what he perceives as "the lust for dissonance in contemporary music" Veldhuis has been "composing more and more melodiously in recent years...I developed my colour palette of light blue, pink and orange because of the limitless potential for expression that this combination offers. I spice my music with sugar." He is looking for "crystal-clear, unearthly and perfect musical beauty that can arouse passion and ecstasy." He surely did not achieve it in this score, a 73-minute, 16-movement "oratorio" meant to be accompanied by videos designed by Pulsatu, which is a company "committed to creating visuals for all kinds of music." Only seven of the "images" are printed in the CD booklet. For the stage presentation, many images are shown on huge screens. Doubtless a visual element would add considerably to the meager musical content of this score, which sounds like John Williams minus the tunes, rhythms and imagination. Instruments include a "sampler," which is a computer/keyboard which produces all sounds that the musicians don't, so it has a major part in the production. Effectively it can take a sample of any noise and recreate it at any pitch and modify the sound as desired. According to CD information, 125 musicians were involved in this production which had its premiere September 12, 2001, the day after 9/11; it was decided to go ahead with the premiere in spite of the disaster. Three performances were given, well reportedly well received at the time.

A description of each of the 16 sections is printed in the CD notes, along with a libretto in English, French, German and Italian. Often in Paradiso we hear voices of astronauts (sometimes repeated) and the rantings of an Evangelist preacher. Part 9, "Heaven of Lust," is a woman's orgasm. Perhaps you've seen the movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan, while in a restaurant proves a woman can fake an orgasm. "Heaven of Lust" makes that scene tame indeed. . I can well imagine what the video would be for this part—and surely it has no place in a concert hall. The final section, "Empireo," is where the Gate of Heaven opens and we hear the final bars of the Credo from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli accompanying the last verses of the Divina Commedia, the only memorable music to be heard in Paradiso.

Recorded under the supervision of the composer, we can assume this performance is what he intended. The two soloists are fine, coloratura soprano Claron McFadden (who presumably was heard in Part 9) copes well with the score's stratospheric upper register with only occasional unsteadiness.

Recorded live in Helpman Centrale, Groningen, The Netherlands, Sept. 13-14, 2001, the sound is superb as one would expect from Chandos. Multi-channel effects are limited: the astronauts and preacher sometimes are more in the rear than the front. This is also issued on DVD (CHDVD 5015) where with the visual element perhaps Paradiso would be more impressive. For whatever reason, my copy of this recording came in a twin-CD box, although there is only one SACD—which is a hybrid disk, the stereo version of which can be played on a regular CD player.

Holst's symphonic survey of the heavens, The Planets, has turned out to be a favorite for multi-channel recording. Already we have versions conducted by Leonard Bernstein on Sony Classics, and Dennis Russell Davies on Chesky, plus Andrew Litton on Delos DVD Audio, all of which have varying degrees of success. The Gardiner performance, recorded February 1993 in All Hollows, Gospel Oak, London, is mightily impressive sonically except for an overly-loud undefined organ; it almost sounds as if it were computer-generated. Gardiner's crisp, precise rhythmic control is perfect for The Planets. The two "big sound" orchestral excerpts are served up splendidly: Mars is appropriately war-like, Uranus tremendously exciting—both even more so as engineering lets us hear sticks on timps. Venus is lovely, Saturn almost overwhelming in its desolation. Every bit of delicate high percussion in Neptune is heard in glistening perspective. Female voices in this section aren't sufficiently distant and, as I've said before in other reviews of Planets, how effective it would have been if this supposedly ethereal sound came from the back instead of the front! Every other multi-channel recording misses his effect, too, unfortunately.

Percy Grainger's outrageous ballet The Warriors is given a brilliant performance. In this 18-minute work, "ghosts of male and female warrior types of all times and places..are spirited together for an orgy of war-like dances, processions and merry-makings...with amorous interludes". It's a remarkably rambunctious, exhuberant score that requires a huge orchestra including three grand pianos, wooden and steel marimbas, tubular and staff bells, plus all other percussion usually heard in orchestral music. The excellent DG recording admirably reveals much detail in the masses of orchestral sound. Multi-channel is used for hall ambience only. Highly recommended, in spite of the overdone organ.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2003)