The Fifth Element #45 Page 3

Although for centuries most Compline music consisted of Psalms chanted monophonically, as the storms of Reformation and reaction buffeted England in the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the greatest church music of any era was written for Compline, in polyphonic style by Tallis, Byrd, and their contemporaries.

This kind of thing must drive record-company people and outside publicists to the bottle, but no sooner had one truly excellent Compline CD landed on my desk than a truly excellent Compline SACD took up residence near it. The SACD, Music for Compline (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807419), is the debut of a new directorless English vocal group, Stile Antico, which comprises 12 or 13 members. A commonality among some of their surnames suggests that some might be siblings or cousins. They are all young, having started while in college and having made their public-performance debut in 2005.

Stile Antico's program is all music from the English Renaissance: Tallis, Byrd, Shepard, White, and Aston. The singing and the recorded sound...well, chums, it doesn't get any better than this, only different. My only quibble is the occasional Britishized Latin pronunciation, such as pacem pronounced as PAHS-sem rather than PA-chem (soft ch).

Harmonia Mundi has gone all out. The SACD, recorded at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London, is pure DSD from end to end, and has a surround program as well. The booklet, texts, notes, and photography are world class. Even if Renaissance church music is not your usual thing, if you care about the survival of the SACD format, vote soon with your wallet and support Harmonia Mundi in this, or repent at leisure.

The Compline CD is John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers' Lighten Our Darkness (Collegium COLCD 131). This is the more adventurous program, including pieces by de Victoria, Guerrero, Jacob Handl, and Rachmaninoff, as well as the usual English Renaissance composers. For me, the great discovery and absolute high point is Josef Rheinberger's Abendlied "Bleib bei uns." Absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful: 3:23 of bittersweet bliss.

Lighten Our Darkness is a 2-CD set. Disc 1 is the above-mentioned music, disc 2 a recording of a complete Compline service, with Psalm 91, a "Nunc Dimittis," etc. This is great for putting the music in its historical context. How many people will listen to it more than twice is an open question.

Lighten Our Darkness was recorded in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, using a slightly more distant perspective than the Stile Antico project. If at this stage of the game the Cambridge Singers don't have quite the incisive freshness of Stile Antico, they pull even—at least—by knowing this repertory in their bones, with a resultant sense of musical flow that is equally treasurable.

I highly recommend both recordings (there is a modest degree of overlap in their repertory). But if you can get only one, I'd go for the Cambridge Singers CD, just for the Rheinberger. It is that special.

Not to be forgotten is the golden oldie Brother Sun Sister Moon (1988), another Cambridge Singers outing (American Gramaphone AGCD588). Although the CD clocks in at only about 38 minutes, it works very well as a program, and, anyway, there are times when 38 minutes of a cappella religious singing are quite enough.

The program is in two halves, Music of the Morning Rite and Music of the Evening Rite. With works by Palestrina, Taverner, and Duruflé, there's less repertory overlap with the newer discs than you might expect. Recorded in the Great Hall of University College School in London, the sound has stood up very well. This CD has been around for quite a while; copies go for peanuts on eBay.

Finally, the Tallis Scholars have re-recorded one of the pieces with which they first made their mark (in 1980), Allegri's Miserere. I have made a careful comparison of the new (Gimell CDGIM 041) and old (Gimell GIMSE 401) recordings. If you're familiar with the Miserere, the new one is well worth seeking out. It's not only a new recording, but a new interpretation as well. I think the Scholars are entitled; they've performed the work more than 300 times, including a memorable occasion at the Sistine Chapel, which was made into a DVD.

The chant verses on the 1980 recording were sung to Tone 2, while on the new one they are sung to Tonus Peregrinus or "wandering tone." Furthermore, the new CD contains two different complete performances. The first track is the Miserere as it is usually sung, with the solo group and high soprano singing the same phrases for each verse. The performance on the last track uses differently embellished phrases for each verse. (The new embellishments are set out in musical notation in the liner notes.)

On the other hand, if you're not familiar with the Miserere, the 1980 version remains in the catalog, reissued at about half price. Miserere is a great piece of music—one of the greatest. For something written ca 1638, it has as powerful a hook as any radio-friendly rock song of the past 50 years. The story goes that performance of it was restricted to the Pope's private chapel, until the teenaged Mozart memorized it in one hearing and later wrote it down. I highly recommend either or both of these versions.

Great Books
Mahler: His Life & Music, by Stephen Johnson
Naxos Books/Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2007. 205 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-1402207587.

This is the best one-volume introduction to Mahler's life and music I know of. Furthermore, it contains nuggets that will be new even to devoted Mahlerians. I was surprised to learn here that when Mahler's widow, Alma, who outlived him by more than 50 years (her post-Mahler antics inspired a Tom Lehrer song), specified the music to be performed at her funeral, none of it was by Gustav. I was even more surprised to find out that this was news to Mahler authority Jerry Bruck, who made haste to buy a copy.

Even better, the book comes with two CDs of movements from Naxos recordings of Mahler's symphonies and other works that are keyed to coverage in the text. It also includes a URL and password for a dedicated website with many more musical examples and reference materials. Highest recommendation—can't beat it with a stick.

Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation, by Marc Fisher
Random House, 2007. 400 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-0375509070.

Just buy this well-written, fast-moving labor of love. Fisher does a fantastic job of finding the human stories buried in the rankings, ratings, and statistics of the history of popular radio programming, from the period immediately following WWII to just about yesterday. Everything from Todd Storz's development of the Top 40 format to Internet radio and podcasting is covered with a connoisseur's eye and a music-lover's heart.

But one suspects that, perhaps even more than music, what Fisher truly loves is the mystery of the miracle that music just appears out of thin air—there's "Something in the Air." My favorite section was the coverage of Jean Shepard, the late monologist and late-night radio personality: "Excelsior, you fathead!" Most highly recommended.

Next time: Another write-in competition, and systems on limited budgets. Feedback.