WGBH Radio WGBH Radio theclassicalstation.org

A Crown Of Stars / Becker, Edwards-Burrs, Dietrich, Cantate Chamber Singers, Maryland State Boychoir

Simpson / Schnittke / Cantate Cs / Becker
Release Date: 07/10/2012 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1358  
Composer:  Andrew Earle SimpsonAlfred Schnittke
Performer:  Lisa Edwards-BurrsJoseph Dietrich
Conductor:  Gisele Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantate Chamber SingersMaryland State Boychoir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

World premiere recording of a wedding oratorio by Andrew Earle Simpson. Andrew Earle Simpson's A Crown of Stars is a wedding oratorio celebrating the universality of human love and was commissioned by the Cantate Chamber Singers while Simpson was the ensemble's Composer-in-Residence. This is the world premiere recording. Mr. Simpson's music follows four principal threads of interest: humanistic music; music for silent films; theatrical music; and folk music. He has created a prodigious array of works for the concert and operatic stage, which have been performed throughout the U.S., Europe and South America. Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's (1934-1998) Requiem evokes vivid images, perhaps because it began as a stage work. It is based on Read more music from a piano quintet that Schnittke dedicated to his mother just after her death.


A. SIMPSON A Crown of Stars: Wedding Cantata in Three Parts. SCHNITTKE Requiem Gisèle Becker, cond; Lisa Edwards-Burrs (sop); Joseph Dietrich (ten); Cantate Chamber Singers; Maryland State Boychoir; Various Instrumentalists ALBANY 1358 (73:53 Text and Translation)

Admittedly, my sense of humor has always leaned to the far side, but surely even those with the most vestigial of funny bones would have to acknowledge the incongruity of pairing a wedding oratorio with a requiem.

For readers unfamiliar with Andrew Earle Simpson, he is a composer, pianist, and organist, and is Ordinary Professor and head of the division of Theory and Composition at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In his role as composer, he has worked in opera, film, orchestral, chamber, choral, dance, and vocal music, and his most recent projects reflect an interest in cross-disciplinary music, silent film, and theatrical music. A good deal more information may be found at his website, andrewesimpson.com.

This is the world premiere recording of Simpson’s A Crown of Stars , a wedding oratorio celebrating the universality of human love. It was commissioned by the Cantate Chamber Singers while Simpson was the ensemble’s composer-in-residence. The libretto draws on a wide variety of poetic texts from sources ancient to modern. In the case of the very opening number, “At the Carnival,” not only the words but the music are by 19th-century Victorian music hall songster, George Leybourne, whose ennobling ditty includes the line, “May cows lay eggs and fish grows legs, if I ever cease to love.” In contrast, Simpson also takes verses from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake, Solomon’s Song of Songs , Sappho, the Rig Veda , blessings from Jewish and Anglican marriage ceremonies, and various Roman poets.

No instrumental ensemble is identified on the album’s front or back covers, but there are sizeable contingents of instrumentalists for both works with few crossovers between them, too many to place in the headnote as is our usual practice, but the players’ names will be found listed on the inside of the back page.

Though in subject matter it differs significantly, in its musical style Simpson’s oratorio reminds me of David DeBoor Canfield’s Passion oratorio, The Proclamation , for those readers familiar with it. Simpson’s neomodernist musical language is highly palatable and easily digested, a composite made up of ingredients familiar from the best of 20th-century American choral traditions exemplified by composers such as Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Menotti. In fact, there were moments in Simpson’s score that brought to mind passages in Menotti’s made-for-television operas.

The performance is outstanding. Soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs, who has a major and very demanding part, is very effective in both her lyrical singing and in moments of heightened emotional drama. Tenor Joseph Dietrich is equally fine, as are the choral contributions. The chamber-sized ensemble of 13 instrumentalists is ably led by Gisèle Becker.

Alfred Schnittke’s 1975 Requiem has been recorded before, several times in fact. The genesis of the work is well known. The idea for a requiem came to Schnittke as he was writing his Piano Quintet, completed in 1976. The composer’s mother had died in 1972, and he wanted one of the movements to be an instrumental in memoriam to her. A full-blown choral requiem took shape when the composer was commissioned to provide incidental music for Schiller’s Don Carlos . The play’s producer requested a background of Catholic Church music, and the Requiem was what Schnittke gave him.

Scoring for the work includes brass, electric and bass guitars, piano, celesta, organ, percussion, chimes, and, of course, solo vocalists and chorus. Not being well versed in the Catholic liturgy, I venture only tentatively that Schnittke’s insertion of the Credo after the Agnus Dei strikes me as highly unusual. I’m not aware that the Credo is a standard part of the memorial Mass, but Schnittke may have included it to satisfy the dramatic demands of Schiller’s play.

Those familiar with Schnittke’s music will know that like many of his other works his Requiem is uncompromisingly modernistic and musically both powerful and moving. At times, it can also be a bit scary. There are moments where the score suggests a meeting of minds between Penderecki and Carl Orff—I’m thinking of the latter’s opera Antigonae . Much of Schnittke’s writing in the requiem projects a ritualistic, deliberately medieval atmosphere, and that mood and tone are exceptionally well captured by Gisèle Becker and her excellent soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists.

Again, I have to express some amusement at the juxtaposition of these two works on the same disc—Simpson’s celebration of connubial and carnal bliss and Schnittke’s sepulchral complement to a violent and tragic play—but perhaps the collocation of A Crown of Stars and the Requiem may be taken as a commentary on the cycle of life. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Read less

Works on This Recording

A Crown of Stars by Andrew Earle Simpson
Performer:  Lisa Edwards-Burrs (Soprano), Joseph Dietrich (Tenor)
Conductor:  Gisele Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantate Chamber Singers,  Maryland State Boychoir
Requiem by Alfred Schnittke
Conductor:  Gisele Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantate Chamber Singers,  Maryland State Boychoir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1974-1975; USSR 

Customer Reviews

Be the first to review this title
Review This Title