The Fifth Element #63 Page 2

Five songs I've listened to with John Marks
1) Kaaren Erickson singing Richard Strauss's "Morgen," at the Consumer Electronics Show, perhaps 1999 or 2000, on a $19,000 pair of Audio Note bookshelf loudspeakers modeled after the Snell E/III, driven by the Audio Note tube integrated amplifier, which then cost about $69,000. The thing I love about hi-fi is the rare moment of magic. Pushing electricity through valves and wires, into a loudspeaker that can tease sound out of the air, and voices, and music. Ms. Erickson was there, with us, in the room that day. A more special musical and audio experience I cannot remember.

2) Guy Klucevsek playing "Eleven Large Lobsters Loose in the Lobby" through Shahinian Compasses—one of the easiest loudspeakers in the world to live with. Made an amazingly inexpensive debut. They sound great on nearly every piece of music one can play. The design is unique but not terribly fussy. Showed off the accordion stylings of Mr. Klucevsek with an authoritative "pop."

3) One of Beethoven's Bagatelles through ASA Pro Monitors. I had the chance, with John, to spend some time talking with Phillippe Bernard, the designer of this extraordinary loudspeaker. It's a tough act to follow, this ASA, and an example of what I really enjoy about speakers. The components of a loudspeaker are really imperfect—very bad, actually—at what they do, and the parts of an ASA are no different. The design is rather generic, two-way, vented six-and-one-half, the cabinet is wood, and regular stuff too—no cryogenically treated Mpingo here. And yet, putting these together, a little bit of this and that, the sum of these is a rather amazing loudspeaker. Just sounds right, just right. Bravo.

4) Extreme's "More than Words" through Wilson Benesch Act Ones. Why, might you ask, am I listening to this stuff. This band is just awful. I did, I recall, say that very thing at the time—until, that is, the presentation overcame me with sound so good, so fine, so precious that it distracted me from the shortcomings of the music. From a loudspeaker that might be the antithesis of the ASA, a carbon-fiberñtechnology goddess. We listened to better stuff (Ella singing Cole Porter) later, all of it breathtaking, clean, and effortless. The only speaker in the group I'd bring home. It hit all the important buttons: toy, tech, joy, beauty, done.

5) Okay. I don't remember 5.

Puer natus est, indeed!
You may recall my previous advocacy of the newish British vocal group Stile Antico, a rising star in the firmament of international label Harmonia Mundi, which remains one of the most steadfast supporters of the SACD format. Stile Antico's newest is a Christmas-themed recording, not surprisingly titled Puer natus est, or "A boy is born" (Harmonia Mundi HMU807517).

Don't let the Christmas theme scare you off. This is just great Tudor-period vocal music in great performances and excellent sound, with nothing recognizably "Christmasy" about it to modern ears. The album is organized around Thomas Tallis's (of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of fame) incomplete but substantial Mass á 7, Puer natus est nobis. However, rather than set out the unfinished Tallis Mass as is, Stile Antico has interleaved its parts with Advent and Christmas music from Tallis contemporaries John Taverner, William Byrd, Robert White, and John Sheppard, and fit in the plainchant from which Tallis drew inspiration. I had my reservations, but it really works.

As far as the performances go, unaccompanied early-music singing doesn't get much better than this. I don't mean to damn this release with faint praise, but this music, like almost all Tudor church music, is very easy to listen to; any drama that there is is restrained, to give an overwhelming impression of simple, pure vocal beauty. So while the program rewards close listening, it is also very congenial background music for social gatherings, and classy as all get-out. And the sound is, again, first-rate, recorded in DSD by Brad Michel at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London. As per the usual HM standard, there are beautiful packaging, complete texts and translations, and very informative notes by a member of the group—the way it all should be done. Sound bites available here.

I continue to think that Stile Antico's first effort, Music for Compline (SACD, HMU 807419), which I praised in my December 2007 column, is a better overall introduction to the group. But if you already have that, you can't go wrong with this. And as I have also said before, if you care about the future of the SACD format, now is the time to vote with your wallet. Buy one for yourself, and a few as gifts.

More Great Lauridsen
Morten Lauridsen got in touch to let me know that a new professional vocal ensemble in Hartford, Connecticut, had self-produced a CD of his music, accompanied and a cappella. The CD is called Sure On This Shining Night, by the ensemble Voce and the Voce Chamber Artists.

In due course the CD arrived. I was tickled to see that the liner notes included a quote from one of my Stereophile writings about Lauridsen's chanson "Contre Qui, Rose," a strong and perhaps absolute favorite of mine. I found Voce's first effort to be very treasurable. The recorded acoustic is a bit swimmy, but with music as numinous as Lauridsen's, you don't want razor-sharp definition anyway.

To make it easier to compare versions of "Contre Qui, Rose," I compiled on a CD-R the original Los Angeles Master Chorale version, the phenomenal recording by Polyphony on Hyperion, the Elora Festival Singers on Naxos, and the new effort from Voce. I found that the Los Angeles effort has well stood the test of time, but that the Polyphony is, overall, superior. I was pleasantly surprised by how the large acoustical space and the tender, even slightly reticent singing by Voce worked so well together to create a very special atmosphere: an atmosphere of regret recollected late at night.

However, I noticed something else. The Elora group on Naxos is good, but in this particular piece I found myself playing air violin in an effort to, I don't know, rouse them a bit. And I wondered why I was playing air violin rather than wielding an air baton.

It hit me like a ton of bricks: "Contre Qui, Rose" is actually a string-quartet encore piece masquerading as a choral piece. At the end of the day, there's not much difference between soprano-alto-tenor-bass and violin†Iñviolin†IIñviolañcello. And the work's melismatic flow and incipient sadness just called out—at least to me—for soulful string playing.

After writing a hasty note to myself, I resumed listening, and the next morning did a quick Internet search. While there is an arrangement for brass ensemble of "Contre Qui, Rose"—as well as for Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium—zip, zero, nada on the "Contre Qui, Rose" string-quartet front.


JasonVSerinus's picture

In John Marks' otherwise excellent column, he repeats misinformation about Cuba's policy toward and treatment of homosexuals. Based on a 26-year old film, he makes a totally unsupportable and untrue statement - that the present-day Castro regime imprisons and tortures homosexuals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Official Cuban policy is totally supportive of lesbians, gays, and transgenders. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and head of Cuba's National Sex Education Center, has spearheaded a huge campaign among the populace about the need to treat lesbians and gays as equals. There was even an officially sanctioned gay rights march in Havana in 2009. Transgenders (some of whom are homosexual) are not only afforded the same free medical care as everyone else, but can also receive gender reassignment surgery after two years of counseling and preparation.

Cuba's former President, Fidel Castro, publicly apologized last summer for the repression of homosexuals in the early days of the Cuban revolution, and called it "a great injustice." It was. But that was before the 1993 Cuban film, Strawberry and Chocolate, and the documentary In the Wrong Body instigated a nationwide discussion of historic attitudes toward homosexuals and the need for change. Although Cuba has yet to sanction same-sex marriage, same sex civil union legislation is currently being debated in the Cuban parliament. All things considered, Cuba's official policy toward homosexuals is light years ahead of state policy in many parts of the world.