Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Two Discs from Minnesota

Slavic Holiday: Legends from Ancient Czechoslovakia and Poland

Fire of the Soul: Choral Virtuosity in 17th-Century Russia & Poland

Both releases are on Rose Records, and are available on iTunes or from the Rose Ensemble's website or from Amazon.com.


I've enthused a good deal in these pages about London and its miraculous concentration of choral talent. There must be some critical mass beyond which a thing becomes self-sustaining, with the numbers of ensembles and the audience for them and the schools producing the new talent and the recording companies interested in them all following in symbiotic lockstep. Whatever the reason, there is an amazing concentration of talent in this one place.

But as I was reminded with the Kansas City Chorale / Phoenix Bach Choir recordings on Chandos, proximity can account for only so much. Musical talent is a distinctly human quality, not a geographic one, and there are talented people everywhere (something about which I'm reminded with organists; there are great organists everywhere of whom no one ever heard).

The Rose Ensemble hails from my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, and specializes in early music from diverse sources. I lived in Minneapolis / St. Paul for 20 years, but I moved from the place about the same time as Artistic Director Jordan Sramek formed the group in 1996. Many of the group are instrumentalists as well as singers, and most seem to have some Minnesota connection, either family or education.

It strikes me that one of the advantages of hailing from a place without deep roots in original music is that one is free to delve into a wider range of styles without confounding anyone's expectations. These two discs feature Slavic composers, spanning from the 11th Century up to a present-day composition commissioned by the Rose Ensemble. The first of these discs, Slavic Holiday, concentrates on very early works from Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the earliest pieces especially are monodic, or feature very essential harmonies. Composition dates range from the 11th to the 17th Centuries. The other disc, Fire of the Soul, concentrates (apart from the contemporary Khvoshchinskiy piece) on the work of three composers: Poles Mikolaj Zielenski (ca.1550- post 1616) and Andrzej Rohaczewski (c. 1600s), and the Russian Vasily Titov (c.1650-ca.1715). Though not quite wearing the misty aura of despair which characterizes so much Russian music, the Titov does have a certain minor mode gravity about it; but the Polish pieces sound more Italian than Russian. I read a review snippet that compared some of this writing to Claudio Monteverdi, and that seems a good stab. I often play a little game with the radio of trying to figure out what I'm listening to before the announcer gives it away, and I would not have guessed Poland with these pieces. The disc finishes with the commissioned work--Rejoice, O Virgin Mary--by Russian Sergey Khvoshchinskiy (b. 1957). This piece is more layered and modern, though you could mistake it for something older if you weren't paying attention. It reminds me a bit of his countryman Gretchaninov, and it sounds identifiably Russian.

Overall, these are much more solid performances than I would have expected--world-class, actually. Pitch is generally excellent, and the male voices especially achieve a wonderful unity. There are one or two moments where the choir's pitch is not absolutely in lock step, but I'm admittedly being awfully fussy to even mention it. These two discs make us a splendid introduction to unknown repertoire (to me, anyway), and I see that the group has quite a number of recordings available. I shall sample some of the others soon.

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