Examining this SACD’s program, the shrink-wrap still in place, the connection among the four 20th Century works programmed by Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar seemed apparent. But hearing the music several times through left me less certain about the intentions of this exceptional release.
One might assume that Music for a Time of War has a pacifist agenda. Certainly Benjamin Britten was an avowed pacifist and a conscientious objector during the Second World War. The Japanese government commissioned his Sinfonia da Requiem and Britten’s client was not pleased—not by the movement titles based on the Latin Mass and not by the music that powerfully represents, most would agree, the Battle of Britain. We hear bombs exploding and, in the words of PentaTone’s thoughtful annotator, Steven Kruger, “the growling of aircraft engines in the low brass.” The message of Britten’s countryman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, is less clear in his Symphony No. 4. This work, too, is a harrowing, violent work and many have heard in it a premonition of the coming apocalypse in Europe, even though the symphony was completed in 1931. Vaughan Williams’s personal history during WW I—he was an ambulance wagon orderly in France—cannot be discounted. Walt
2 October 2008 The Absolute Sound
Whitman’s Civil War experiences were also formative. The poet was a nurse in battlefield hospitals during the Civil War and the texts for John Adams’ The Wound- Dresser are drawn from Whitman’s Drum Taps, published in 1865.
The performances are all convincing. Kalmar keeps up the emotional heat but knows exactly when to pull back and give the listener some respite while maintaining an undercurrent of dread, as with the gently ambulatory rhythm of the Britten’s closing movement. The Oregon Symphony has the necessary tonal resources and muscle to deliver on the stressed, anxious mood of the music. Sanford Sylvan has been John Adams’ go- to baritone for decades: The Wound-Dresser was written for the performer and Sylvan made the first recording for Nonesuch back in 1989. If anything, his insights have deepened over the years.
PentaTone’s sound is terrific, courtesy of John Newton and Boston’s SoundMirror studio: vivid, highly detailed, and dynamic. Steven Kruger refers to the opening of Sinfonia da Requiem as “perhaps the most memorable timpani explosion in all of music” and PentaTone gives us a sense of a hard mallet hitting a stretched drum skin hard as realistically as I’ve ever heard. The sound of massed strings playing softly, important in all four scores, is gorgeous, subtly textured without any trace of digital steeliness. Especially in surround, front-to-back layering is outstanding.
When I did open up the jewel box, the liner notes were silent on the issue of pacifism. It may be that the SACD’s opening work, Charles Ives’s remarkable 1906 The Unanswered Question tells the story. All the music on this intense but rewarding program can be viewed as addressing the impossibility of knowing— of knowing why people act as they do in their personal lives and as nations, of knowing the meaning of existence. No language is up to fully delineating such dark corners of the human psyche, but the language of music probably comes closest.