Oregon music on record 2015: Cappella Romana & Portland Baroque Orchestra

Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, beginning with two Portland based groups that usually perform music before 1800 and frequently work together, as in this month’s Messiah performances. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Cappella Romana

The Portland vocal ensemble released three recordings this year.

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300Good Friday in Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Re-read James McQuillen’s ArtsWatch review. You can hear the ensemble sing some of this music next week; see our Wednesday weekend previews for details.
cappella romana steinberg
Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week

Read my Wall Street Journal review of the Portland vocal ensemble’s world premiere performance of the long lost choral masterpiece they recorded and released this year. This new recording sounds just as moving as that performance, and contains not only the Lithuanian-born Steinberg’s early 20th century sacred music masterpiece, but also five Chant Arrangements for Holy Week composed by Steinberg’s father in law, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose shimmering beauty, if not innovation, approaches that of his son in law’s work.

Cyprus: Between Greek East & Latin West
Nicosia, Cyprus in the 15th century: crossroads of East and West; way station for Crusaders; a prize captured by Richard the Lionheart; a successive vassal of French, Italian and Ottoman rulers; a multicultural community that included significant populations of Christians both European and Middle Eastern, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims. There are moments in history when the right combination of people and historical forces converges on a particular provincial community (like ‘60s Motown or Memphis in pop music) and transforms a cultural outpost into a surprising artistic fountain. The Portland vocal ensemble’s third (!) 2015 release imagines what a listener might have heard at one of those fertile junctures.

cappella romana cyprusThe two dominant strains of Christianity — Orthodox and Roman, Eastern and Western — coexisted, and their sacred music differed at least as much as their religious practices after the Great Schism, with Western music focusing on increasing complex polyphony and rhythmic sophistication, while Eastern church music evolved new and innovative ways of elaborating on sacred chant melodies. As artists will, musicians in each tradition drew inspiration from the other. For listeners to this disk, which includes music (discovered in ancient manuscripts and obscure scholarly publications) that might have been sung at either of medieval Nicosia’s nearby Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals, that means a collection of uncommon musical richness and variety, embracing Latin, Turkish, Greek, Byzantine, Italian and other Western European elements.

It’s all performed with Cappella’s usual immaculate singing by some of Oregon’s finest vocalists (male and female); scrupulous attention to historical, linguistic, and musical details; and pristine production that makes you almost (but not quite) imagine you’ve taken the Wayback Machine to ancient Nicosia. Cappella Romana has often delivered masterful performances of both Western and Byzantine sacred music; on this recording, we can hear them do both, and understand how they influenced each other at that rich historical moment.

Cappella Romana cantors

J.S. Bach: Concertos For One, Two And Three Violins
Portland Baroque Orchestra>Why does anyone need another album of some of J.S. Bach’s greatest music? Of course if you don’t have a recording of the violin concertos classical music’s greatest composer wrote during his years leading Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum already, you should immediately run out and obtain these recordings by Oregon’s own historically informed period instrument orchestra. But many of you reading this probably already have one or more recordings, so why buy another, besides supporting the locals (not that that’s a bad reason)?

A few decades ago, the advent of the period instrument movement meant that pioneering new recordings of this music really did sound a lot different from the usual modern instrument recordings, which were almost always played on instruments and in tunings and styles that drastically compromised both the composer’s intentions and the music’s beauty, richness and uniqueness. By now, so many HIP ensembles — many featuring musicians who’ve grown up with authentic performance practice and have performance chops the pioneers rarely approached — have had their ways with Bach that many of you probably already have a favorite HIP recording.

Yet PBO’s new Bach CD, recorded at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne’s Chapel in 2013, offers ample and singular rewards: the lithe, muscular performance style that’s a hallmark of PBO music director Monica Hugget’s vigorous, rhythmically charged approach; a chamber-orchestra intimacy and transparency (in at least one case due to a historically informed decision to reduce the usual number of fiddles to that probably used by Bach), and PBO’s usual tight, energetic performances.

PB501cover Portland Baroque Orchestra

The members are veterans of many of the country’s top HIP ensembles, and Huggett herself has not only led many of the world’s finest period instrument bands but starred in those of three of the elder European statesmen of HIP, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and Ton Koopman (her predecessor as PBO music director), whose emphasis on Bach’s dance roots still invigorates her interpretations.

And interpretation is another key to what makes this album, and just about any attempt to play these concertos, special. Plenty of performers and scholars have tried to figure out definitive interpretations based on surviving three-century old evidence of various degrees of sketchiness. Many Bach concerti (including some here) are reconstructions of now-lost (probable) originals based on later arrangements, some by Bach himself, to suit the players at his disposal, for other instruments. Huggett has always been upfront about her desire to expand the repertoire of her favorite composer’s music for violins, and here, they’re reverse-engineered from harpsichord to violin.

This isn’t the forum to indulge in historio-musicological nitpicking; Huggett and PBO star oboist Gonzalo Ruiz (who produced the album) both teach in Juilliard’s early music program, so their scholarly bona fides match their performance eminence and long experience actually playing this music. Endless quibbling is possible, and scholarly research continues, so definitive interpretations will probably never be possible. Jude Ziliak’s detailed liner notes clearly explain the historical sources of their interpretive decisions, including the choice of editions.

What matters to most listeners is how persuasive the performances are, and to these ears, PBO’s recordings (including a couple of reconstructions that many listeners may not have in their collections, at least not for violins) stand with the very best of the many I’ve heard, and outdo many in sheer exuberant affection for their composer.

There are plenty of worthwhile options for recordings of this great music, and your choice will depend as much on your own taste as historical authenticity, but it’s difficult to find another simultaneously so true to Bach’s intentions and so lively and emotionally irresistible. If you don’t already have this magnificent music played in historically accurate tunings and on authentic instruments, get this recording; it’s one of the best available interpretations of some of the greatest music ever created. If you’re already HIP to Bach multi-fiddle recordings, get this one anyway; this music of all music certainly bears repeated listenings and multiple approaches.

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