No matter how many accolades its members and conductor have, no a cappella choir distinguishes itself merely by excellent execution. Its repertoire has to have something going for it too-eclecticism if nothing else. These 19 sacred songs manage that well enough: Protestant hymns, Catholic Latin, African-American spirituals. But even that mix feels pro forma. What doesn't is Eric Whitacre's setting of E.E. Cummings' "I thank You God for most this amazing day," a sonnet of praise that even most English majors don't know Cummings wrote.
The Krenek piano composition that became famous because Glenn Gould performed it during his last live performance is the fourth of this album's six works. And if its four movements totaling 21 minutes don't suggest why Krenek continues to fascinate even now, two decades after his death, nothing will. "Krenek's works could not be assigned to one particular stylistic direction," read the liner notes. "He moved flexibly between the old and the new." Khristenko seems particularly attuned to this aesthetic multiplicity. One might even say he unifies it.
The concerto for alto saxophone and symphonic winds that lends this four-concerto recording its title was composed by David DeBoor Canfield to enshrine in sound the martyrdoms of Polycarp (a.d. 155), Gaspard de Coligny (1572), and Jim Elliot (1956) respectively. That it succeeds becomes apparent when you realize you're enjoying it apart from any knowledge of Canfield's source material; that Tse succeeds becomes apparent when you realize his saxophone is chiefly responsible for your enjoyment. If you thought jazz sax was something, you ain't heard nothin' yet.
Disc One is everything a fan of the harpsichord, the greatest French composer for the harpsichord (Rameau), and one of the greatest living performers on the harpsichord (Vinikour) could want. Precise and sensitive, it dazzles from the beginning to the end of its 78 minutes. But it's the Suite in A Minor, the first of Rameau's two Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, at the start of Disc Two that will move listeners to awe. The "Sarabande" and "Fanfarinette" alone justify the $19.99 new-copy price.
"He is considered not only the greatest French composer who ever lived," wrote Harold Schonberg of Claude Debussy's evolving posthumous status. "He is considered the revolutionary who, with the Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un faune of 1894, set 20th-century music on its way." Whether that particular prelude did, in fact, launch a revolution, there are worse ways to begin considering the possibility than to listen to the version transcribed for two pianos by Debussy himself on Alexei Lubimov's latest album, Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM New Series).
That prelude and three nocturnes (transcribed for two pianos by Maurice Ravel) join solo performances of Debussy's two books of preludes (24 in all). Lubimov's duet partner is his fellow Russian Alexei Zuev. Their instruments are a 1925 Bechstein and a 1913 Steinway that Lubimov painstakingly chose for the occasion. The resulting sounds, if not revolutionary, are certainly faithful to the spirit if not always the laws of what continues to make Debussy unique.