Harmonie Ensemble/New York, Harmonia Mundi.
Think of the impeccably smart stylishness of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, or of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, and you’ll have an idea of this brilliant new Gershwin CD by Steven Richman and his orchestra of virtuoso instrumentalists, Harmonie Ensemble/New York.
Over the past 50 years, historically informed performance, or HIP, has profoundly changed our ideas about how music of the past ought to sound. HIP examines manuscript sources, instruments and techniques of music-making that would have been recognizable to the composer, clearing away the cobwebs of tradition and routine in search of fresh insights. The term is usually thought of as applying to early music, but this recording demonstrates that the HIP approach can yield riches in scores of far more recent vintage.
Examining the Gershwin manuscripts at the Library of Congress, Richman made a remarkable discovery: In many instances, editors sought to “correct” what they perceived as Gershwin’s musical shortcomings, resulting in published scores at variance with the composer’s intentions. Richman and the Harmonie have gone back to these manuscript sources to achieve what the conductor describes as the “lean, unsentimental style” of the 1920s and ’30s.
The version of the overture to the Broadway musical “Of Thee I Sing” was the one used for a 1934 CBS radio broadcast, hosted by the composer. The pianist Lincoln Mayorga plays it straight in a performance of the Concerto in F without gimmick or pretense. Three preludes are presented in sparkling orchestrations by Ray Bargy, Paul Whiteman’s arranger. But the centerpiece of the program is “An American in Paris,” a lithe, translucently colorful performance that combines power and grace. Sassy, in your face and vigorously rhythmical, Gershwin has never sounded better.
By all accounts, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) was the Beethoven of the high Renaissance. In one of his sermons, Martin Luther declared the composer “the master of the notes, which must do as he wills; the other choirmasters must do as the notes will.” The Tallis Scholars, the redoubtable English choir that specializes in Renaissance music, is recording all of the polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass Ordinary attributed to Josquin. The group released the sixth volume of the set a few weeks ago on Gimell Records, its private label, and it continues to be authoritative.
Yet neither of the two Masses on the new recording might actually be by Josquin. Elements of the composer’s style seem to abound in the “Missa Di dadi” (“Mass of the dice”), including long strands of bicinia, two-part sections of music, for various combinations of the four voices, piled up in strict imitation of one another. Voices repeat motifs obsessively in some places, and there are long chains of reiterated suspensions in almost endless cycles — in, for example, the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo.
The composer drew the tenor part of the Mass from “N’aray je jamais mieulx” (“Will I never have better”), a rondeau by Robert Morton. A pair of the titular dice appear in the score at the beginning of each movement, indicating the ratio by which the tenors must alter the rhythms of their part in some of the movements for a performance to make sense. (The Tallis Scholars have published the edition by Timothy Symons that was used for the recording, although the performance deviates from it in some minor matters.)
The second piece, “Missa Une mousse de Biscaye,” also is based on a secular tune: a folk song about a conversation between a French man and a Basque girl (“mousse” derives from the Spanish word “moza,” meaning girl). A curious piece, it might be an early Mass by Josquin, composed before he had reached his mature style, or it might not be by Josquin at all. Both pieces receive detailed, balanced performances on this disc, with intonation and blend, within each section and across the choir, up to the Tallis Scholars’ incomparable standards.