From home base on Cape Cod, the ecumenical Gloriae Dei Cantores circle the globe sharing the sacred choral music of many schools. On their latest CD, dedicated to the All-Night Vigil, op. 37 of Sergei Rachmaninoff (GDCD 063), there's reinforcement from specialists in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Was the intent to spike the mix with "authenticity"? If so, that didn't happen: there's none of the savage grit characteristic of the low voices in native Russian choruses (even when strictly in tune), nor of the knife-edge projection of the high voices. Instead, we hear timbres that blend immaculately from top to bottom. That's no cause for complaint. On its own terms, I imagine the radiance will come through to listeners of virtually any persuasion, spiritual, doctrinal, musicological, or esthetic.
There are those for whom Bach's instrumental writing shines with all the spirituality of his oratorios and cantatas. The mind makes the leap most easily in the case of a monumental creation like The Well-Tempered Clavier, the so-called Goldberg Variations, or the D-minor Ciaconna from Violin Partita No. 2. But perhaps even suites based on now-antique dance forms will support such an argument, which may or may not have informed two recent recordings of the Partita No. 3 in a minor, BWV 827, both on modern concert pianos. From the grab-bag recital under the title Johann Sebastian Bach (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5634), we heard the rising Polish star Rafal Blechacz dispatch the opening Fantasia, Allemande, Corrente, and Sarabande in high definition, with a bouncy touch, spring-loaded trills, and remarkable dynamic nuance. For the concluding movements of the partita—from a da capo of the Sarabande on to the Burlesca, Scherzo, and Gigue—we turned to the British Charles Owen and his double album J.S. Bach/The Six Keyboard Partitas Charles (Avie AV 2366). Neither artist ever lets us forget that Bach wrote for instruments very different from the concert grand of today. Mimicking the limitations, they shun legato; melody develops note by detached note. By the same token, louder passages and softer ones are kept neatly apart; crescendo and decrescendo are applied with the utmost discretion if at all. Yet within the driven brilliance that prevails, Blechacz finds room for spells of introverted, dreamy lyricism, while Owen maintains a strict, magisterial formality. Both do the composer full justice; personal preferences can only be a matter of taste.
For our finale, we turned to the Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, teamed with the British maestro Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, of Norway, on the album In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius (Chandos CHSA 5178). Though with trepidation, I went straight for the ballad "Koskilaskijan morsiamet" (The Rapids-Rider's Brides), the tale of young lovers drowned in a raging river by a jealous water witch.
Who knows where the time goes? I had heard this 10-minute epic only once before, during a visit by the Finnish National Opera to the Metropolitan Opera House in 1983. The soloist was the spell-binding baritone Jorma Hynninen, who somehow located me in orchestra seat R118, seized me by the figurative lapels, and told the story to me alone—or so I could not help believing. Thanks to a profile I went on to write about him for Connoisseur magazine, Jorma and his family became lifelong friends. Finley's reading, fatalistic yet rhapsodic against an orchestral backdrop of torrential beauty, lived up to the memory and planted a new one.