Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Unexpected Pleasures

I used to prowl for recordings, mostly at the dearly departed Tower Records stores. My serious collecting started just about twenty years ago. Frequent travel to the Silicon Valley left me all too close to the magnificent store nearest the Stanford University campus; I believe that proximity fostered a store with a particularly good selection. Of course, back then it was considerably easier to select titles, as I had very little. I remember purchasing my first recording of the Bach Inventions (performed by András Schiff); over the years I added many more recordings of the Inventions from that store. For a period, I was paid a per diem amount for meals that far in excess of what I needed for food, which helped to subsidize my new habit.

My selection tended to be conservative, focusing on the "big names," both in composers and performers. Nowadays it is almost the opposite: I seek out the lesser names. I'm looking for something new and startling. As it happens, a couple of recordings landed in my lap, neither recording something I would have picked out myself, both marvelous. The common thread is two performers: Shannon Mercer and Luc Beauséjour. Of course, the harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour is well known to me. I'm afraid I don't know my singers, so soprano Shannon Mercer was completely unknown to me. The pairing, in combination with other guest artists, seems to create some special chemistry.

I'm trying to build a stronger appreciation the vocal literature. What's not to appreciate? Ultimately, the problem is that I tend to identify with that which I might conceivably do, anbd I fear that singing falls into the category of inconceivable. Indeed, I met my wife at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1970: we were the two freshmen told to take "remedial voice" coaching. I guess we were that bad! My first vocal tutor, a student from Berkeley, didn't return after our first disastrous lesson; I can only guess that she has had nightmares ever since. The second tutor was an opera singer, and I didn't return after an even more painful lesson; I have had nightmares since...

I don't feel authoritative enough to pass judgment on Mercer's voice, except to say that is it both pure and pleasing: it has character, is neither a Wagnerian opera voice, nor would I describe it as overly delicate. I'm more confident in assessing Beauséjour, who is a fine harpsichordist who seems particularly suited to the ensemble; he seems to be the common ingredient across many fine recordings.

The first recording (Analekta AN 2 9920) is devoted to a French composer I have had very little exposure to: Jean-Joseph Cassanéa Mondonville (1711-1772). The bulk of it is his Op. 5, a collection of sacred motets for harpsichord and voice or violin. In fact, the notes speculate that the composer may have intended the work for his wife, who was both a fine harpsichordist and singer, with himself filling in on violin. The notes are ambiguous over the score, but it would appear that the distribution of parts between the soprano and violin are up to the performers; if so, the small ensemble, including the very fine violinist Hèléne Plouffe, seems to hit things right on the mark. Opus 5 is really beautiful music, in fact, memorable music. The longest piece, Protector meus, is darkly dramatic, with inventive harmonic twists that make one sit up and pay attention.

The recording ends with a harpsichord and violin duo, taken from Mondonville's Op. 3. This, too, is memorable: really first class music that should be more a part of the standard repertoire. Ultimately, my search for overlooked masterpieces is captured in this excellent recording.

A second recording by Mercer and Beauséjour—so hot off the press that it is still sizzling (Analekta AN 2 9907)—takes on Sebastian Bach from a refreshing intimate angle: Bach and the Liturgical Year. It is appropriately subtitled "Arias and Organ Chorales" and this time we have Beauséjour on a small positif organ, along with addition support by oboe, violin, and 'cello in combinations that provide variety and color. This recording is one of charm and delight, and it seems that Mercer aims for a slightly sweeter sound.

My infatuation with Sebastian Bach's contrapuntal mastery has obscured my appreciation for his mastery of the melodic line. This program is full of tunes: great tunes complimented by the supporting instrumentalists. In particular, I find the duets with oboe to be especially appealing. Using a chamber organ adds to the delight, and Beauséjour piles on the charm with half a dozen solo pieces, including the Choral In dulci jubilo, that is sweet beyond words. He plays with a great deal of articulation, more than I am used to hearing on the organ; this style really enhances the counterpoint and brings new light to the organ literature.

My only complaint with the Bach recording is that the sound seems slightly dry. Perhaps the microphones are a little too close or the room just a little dead. This is a very minor issue that is perhaps directed mostly at the organ solos. Overall, the sound is rich and well-balanced. If one loves Sebastian Bach—and who doesn't?—I couldn't imagine not loving this recording.

I live for these unexpected pleasures.