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8.570225-26 - MYSTIC CLASSICS - Visionary Choral and Orchestral Masterpieces

Mystic Classics – Visionary choral and orchestral masterpieces


In philosophical terms, a mystic seeks direct and intimate communion with the spiritual truth that lies behind, beyond or within the world of appearances. This may mean experiencing the Oneness of all creation, achieving integration into Godhead or becoming aware of the eternal state of things that underlies the ever-changing flux of ordinary life. It may involve magic or special rituals in order to access alternative states of consciousness or to enter other realms than the human. In musical terms, few composers are, strictly speaking, mystics; however, many have sought to express mystical ideas or have written music whose beauty and emotional power inspire listeners with feelings akin to those sought by the mystic. This album, Mystic Classics, presents a selection of such music by a number of important modern composers.

William Alwyn’s Symphonic Prelude The Magic Island was composed in 1952 and drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is set on an island ruled by the aged magician Prospero and inhabited by a number of supernatural creatures including the half-beast Caliban, whose famous lines from Act III Scene 2 preface the score:

…the Isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and harm not;
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

This atmospheric tone poem perfectly captures both the delightful sounds and sweet airs and the heartbreaking sense of longing for a better world that characterises Caliban’s poetic speech.

Polish composer Henryk Górecki achieved international success, as if overnight, with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs of 1976. In each of its three movements a poem is sung by a solo soprano. The first movement sets a fifteenth-century lamentation from The Holy Cross Monastery, the third movement a folk-song in the Opole dialect and the second, which is featured on this disc, a prayer inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo cell in the Polish town of Zakopane by an 18-year-old prisoner named Helena Blazusiakowna:

Mamo, nie plaz, nie,
Niebios Przeczysta Królowo,
Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie.
Zdrowaś Mario.

(Mother, no, do not cry,
Queen of Heaven most chaste
Help me always.
Hail Mary.)

The poignant simplicity of these lines, heightened by the plea that the Blessed Virgin Mary should not weep despite the suffering of her devotee, is perfectly expressed by Górecki’s haunting music whose restraint adds to the tragic nature of this innocent prayer.

Ralph Vaughan Williams first achieved recognition as a major composer in 1910 with his first symphony A Sea Symphony, which set the poetry of Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, whose music is based on a hymn-tune by that Tudor composer which originally set the words:

Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite,
In fury raging stout?
Why tak’th in hand the people fond,
Vain things to bring about?
The Kings arise, the Lords devise,
In counsels met thereto,
Against the Lord with false accord,
Against His Christ they go.

While Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia for double string orchestra and string quartet avoids the need for this text to be sung, he did make effective use of the uneven gait of Tallis’ theme, building it into a rhapsodic meditation of immense emotional impact. By contrasting passages for the quartet against the weightier sound of the full strings, and using techniques derived from Elizabethan music, Vaughan Williams creates a multi-dimensional purely instrumental masterpiece in which worlds old and new, sacred and pastoral seem to coexist as if in a visionary experience.

Gustav Mahler’s immense Symphony No 2 takes its sub-title, ‘Resurrection,’ from the poem of the same name by Klopstock which the composer sets for soloists and chorus in the immense final movement: ‘Rise, yes, you will rise/ my ashes, after a short rest!/ You will be granted eternal life/ by He who called you!’ This paean to life everlasting is preceded by a shorter movement in which the alto soloist sings a mystical poem from the collection known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn):

O Röschen roth!
Der Mensch liegt in gröβter Noth!
Der Mensch liegt in gröβter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein!

Da kam ich an einen breiten Weg;
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich lieβ mich nicht abweisen:
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

O little red rose!
Humanity lies in greatest want!
Humanity lies in greatest pain!
Would that I were in Heaven!

Then I came upon a broad way;
There came a little angel who would send me away.
Ah no! I’ll not be sent away:
I am from God and will return to God!
Dear God will give me a little light,
And light me to eternal bliss!

Mahler, who earned his living as a conductor in Vienna, took many years to compose his Second Symphony (1888-94). He revised it in 1903 and provided it with a program. In the first movement, we are to imagine that we stand by the coffin of someone we loved and remember their ambitions, struggles and feelings. The second movement recalls moments of happiness as well as the sadness of lost innocence, while the third brings feelings of despair and disgust with life. The fourth movement, which is included here, ushers in the hope provided by faith, while the great choral finale closes the symphony with the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.

Like Mahler’s, the music of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara is frequently imbued with a love of nature and an abiding spirituality. His Seventh Symphony, titled Angel of Light, was commissioned and first performed by the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. It is one of a number of Rautavaara’s works to be concerned with angels, though the composer regards them as mythical archetypes rather than actual beings. The third movement, ‘Like a Dream’, is the expressive heart of the symphony.

The prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, on the other hand, takes a more literal approach in Star Dawn, the fifty-third of his 67 symphonies. Composed for an ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments, Star Dawn was inspired by Dante’s Paradiso, which suggested to the composer the idea of space travel. Its two movements depict a journey through space and arrival on another planet, respectively. Bells symbolise the stars, long fl owing melodies evoke the journey and great chorale passages symbolise humankind and its never-ending urge to explore the most distant horizons.

Of all the composers featured on this double album, Gustav Holst perhaps came closest to being a true mystic in spirit. His most famous work, The Planets, completed in 1917, was inspired not by space travel but by the astrological significance of each of the planets (excluding, of course, Pluto, which was only discovered in 1934, a few years before Holst’s death, and which has recently lost its scientific status as a planet). In the final movement, Neptune The Mystic, Holst calls upon a wordless female chorus to express the strange atmosphere of the planet that lies at the farthest reach of our Solar System, a sentinel orbiting at the gateway to the interstellar void. In astrological terms, Neptune is the planet of dreams and deception, but also of spiritual enlightenment. A master of disguise, Neptune holds sway over visionaries, idealists and those with heightened consciousness.

While Hovhaness’ Star Dawn (CD1) depicts an imaginary interplanetary journey, the three works on the second disc draw inspiration from more earthly sources. Of his Symphony No 4 for Wind Orchestra Op 165 the composer writes: ‘I admire the giant melody of the Himalayan Mountains, seventh-century Armenian religious music, classical music of South India, orchestral music of Tang Dynasty China around 700 A.D. and the operas and oratorios of Handel…It is in three movements. The first movement, Andante, is a hymn and fugue. The Allegro movement follows…as wind choirs develop the fugue in vocal counterpoint. The second movement, Allegro, is a dance-trio-dance from. The third movement, Andante espressivo, is a hymn and fugue.’ It was composed in 1958 for the American Wind Symphony of Pittsburgh.

Hovhaness’ Symphony No 20 Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain Op 223 was commissioned by the Ithaca NY High School Band in 1969 and is richly scored, with multiple wind instruments playing the role of the strings in a conventional orchestra. Prominent solo lines are given to the cor anglais, alto saxophone, clarinets and oboe.

His Prayer of Saint Gregory Op 62b, which concludes the second CD, originated as an intermezzo in Hovhaness’ religious opera Etchmiadzin. The composer explains: ‘St Gregory, the Illuminator, brought Christianity to Armenia around the year 301. This music is like a prayer in darkness. St Gregory was cast into the pit of a dungeon where he miraculously survived after about fifteen years after which he cured the King’s madness.’ A solo trumpet takes the part of the preacher saint, while the wind band represents the congregation. The version for wind band was first performed in 1972 by the North Jersey Wind Symphony.

John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a 45-minute meditation, Section I of which is featured here, was commissioned by the BBC in 1989 for cellist Steven Isserlis. It is a tableau depicting an episode from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, as Mother of God, is greatly venerated in the Greek Orthodox tradition to which the composer became a convert. The protecting veil itself was said to have been cast by an apparition of Mary over the skies of Constantinople when the city was under siege by the Saracen army.

The Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt is renowned for the spiritual stillness of much of his music. His Passio is a setting of the Passion of Christ as recounted by the evangelist St John. The excerpt included here, ‘”Unde es tu?” Jesus autem responsum non dedit ei’, presents the episode in which Pontius Pilate asks Christ ‘Who are you?’ to which he receives no response. Pressed by the crowd, Pilate then delivers Christ over to be crucified, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus would die to redeem humanity.

Stephen Schafer


The music on Mystic Classics is drawn from the following Naxos recordings:

8.570144 ALWYN Elizabethan Dances, The Innumerable Dance, Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings, Aphrodite in Aulis, The Magic Island, Festival March
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor)

8.550822 GÓRECKI Symphony No 3, Three Olden Style Pieces
Zofi a Kilanowicz (soprano), Cracow Radio and Televsion Choir, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice), Antoni Wit (conductor)

8.555867 VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, In the Fen Country, Fantasia on Greensleeves, Concerto Grosso
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (conductor)

8.550523–24 MAHLER Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’
Jadwiga Rappé (alto), Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice), Antoni Wit (conductor)

8.555814 RAUTAVAARA Symphony No 7 ‘Angel of Light’, Angels and Visitations
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Hannu Koivula (conductor)

8.555776 HOLST The Planets, The Mystic Trumpeter; Matthews Pluto The Renewer
Ladies of Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor)

8.559207 HOVHANESS Symphonies Nos 4, 20 ‘Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain’ & 53 ‘Star Dawn’, Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places, Prayer of St Gregory
Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra, Keith Burton (conductor)

8.558152–53 TAVENER A Portrait (2 CDs + illustrated booklet)
Maria Kliegel (cello), Ulster Orchestra, Takuo Yuasa (conductor)

8.558182–83 PÄRT A Portrait (2 CDs + illustrated booklet)
Tonus Peregrinus, Antony Pitts (conductor)

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