Sumi Jo Prayers: Sumi Jo, soprano

CD REVIEWS

Cologne Philharmonic...

September 20, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Sumi Jo

Prayers: Sumi Jo, soprano; Cologne Philharmonic and Chorus; James Conlon, conductor. (Erato 8573-85772-2)

This disc was among several new releases that had piled up over the weeks, awaiting a first listen. It suddenly stood out from the stack last week, a godsend after the carnage in New York and Washington, an antidote to the dread.

The imaginative program takes a broad, secular and nonsecular view of musical prayer, ranging from a 16th-century Ave Maria to a 1996 Requiem, from traditional spirituals to scenes from operetta and Broadway.

In ordinary times, this recording would be noteworthy, given that Korean-born soprano Sumi Jo (currently earning raves in the Washington Opera's production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann) brings to all this diverse material her customary sensitivity and exquisite, silvery tone. She received effective support throughout from James Conlon and his orchestral and choral forces.

Heard after last week's hell, the whole package - repertoire and interpretation - cannot help but sound more inspired, comforting, necessary.(The rather peculiar cover photo of Jo, who looks more tarted up than penitential, is a minor distraction. A lack of translations for all the sung texts is more troubling.)

How appropriate that the CD opens with Kaddish, one of Maurice Ravel's Deux melodies hebraiques - "May the gracious heavens grant us calm and peace." The soprano delivers this haunting music with a radiance that seems to envelop the whole disc. It shines in the poignant Pie Jesu from Gabriel Faure's Requiem; the operatic Sanctus from Charles Gounod's St. Cecilia Mass; an Ave Maria attributed to Giulio Cacini (given an unfortunately Hollywood-ish arrangement by Steven Mercurio); and Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner's unabashedly romantic Lacrimosa from his Requiem for My Friend.

The secular items include a tender song by Richard Strauss and opera arias by Rossini and Donizetti. (Jo is stretched technically in the prayer scene from the latter's Maria Stuarda, but she puts the drama across.) Laura's Song from Casanova, a Viennese operetta concocted by Ralph Benatzky out of Johann Strauss music, presents a young nun's prayer in lilting three-quarter time, which the soprano caresses idiomatically.

Say a Prayer for Me Tonight from Lerner and Loewe's Gigi is another sweet waltz, but its line "She is much too young to die" takes on a new, unintentionally chilling context.

In the end, the most moving selection of all is from another musical that involved Gigi's lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, collaborating with Leonard Bernstein in one of the worst of flops, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One song from that bicentennial score has managed to have a little life of its own; it may now spark much greater interest, especially if more people get to hear the affecting performance given here by Jo (singing in lightly accented English) and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

The song is Take Care of This House. It's not just about the presidential mansion, of course, but the nation: "Take care of this house, Keep it from harm, If bandits break in, Sound the alarm . . . Be always on call, For this house is the hope of us all." ****

Terry Riley

Terry Riley: Requiem for Adam, The Philosopher's Hand. Kronos Quartet; Terry Riley, pianist. (Nonesuch 79639-2)

"When you lose a person close to you, the best thing to do is put something in that person's place, to make an affirmation that life goes on."

Composer Terry Riley, one of the primary forces behind the musical style that came to be known as minimalism, recalled that advice from a friend when he was confronted with a startling death in 1995. Adam Harrington, 16-year-old son of Kronos Quartet violinist and longtime friend David Harrington, died suddenly from a blood clot. Riley subsequently wrote a three-movement string quartet to put in the teen-ager's place.

Requiem for Adam, at once personal and universal, is a significant addition to the string-quartet repertoire. In light of the current national tragedy, it may resonate even more strongly with listeners, especially at the sound of a recurring passage of slurred notes that eerily evokes the wailing of a siren.

The 42-minute Requiem contains many contrasts that present a spectrum of emotions and reflections. The vitality of youth is very much in the score, not just the heaviness of loss experienced by parents and friends; the music has the force of truth in it.

Heard purely as a work of art, Requiem for Adam stands squarely on its own merits - a distinctive application of minimalist idioms that allows for a great deal of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic variety; a striking use in the second movement of electronic percussion and horns to provide a counterpoint to the strings; brilliant writing for those strings to produce a rich palette of tone coloring that conveys an equally rich layer of feeling.

In the closing moments, a soft, high-pitched, descending motive appears, separated by silences, suggesting the hopeful calls of an unanswered voice, or the short, mute cries of falling stars.

The Kronos players deliver an arresting performance, as technically sure as it is expressively potent. Filling out the disc is about six minutes of improvisation at the piano by Riley himself. The result, called The Philosopher's Hand, is a gentle memorial to his late teacher Pandit Pran Nath, and another reminder of the 66-year-old composer's artistic fertility. ****

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