Thursday, December 31, 2015

"The Little Match Girl": A New Year's choral narrative by Gordon Getty (with other works) is issued on CD

The cover of a new release of Gordon Getty compositions
Gordon Getty is among the prolific senior composers of a conservative bent who have a steady inclination to make major statements. I find his belief in the social utility of concert music touching, and fortunately its apparent rootedness in his temperament and characteristic musical language usually saves his output from seeming too mission-driven.

Some recently recorded examples are glowingly performed in "The Little Match Girl" (Pentatone), whose title comes from the most substantial work, a setting for chorus and orchestra of Hans Christian Andersen's pathetic tale of an impoverished urban match seller and her desperate visions on a cold New Year's Eve.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra perform under the direction of Asher Fisch and Ulf Schirmer. The sound is radiant — close, but with room to blossom. I will take note of vocal soloists in two works I won't review fully here: tenor Nikolai Schukoff in "Poor Peter" and soprano Melody Moore and baritone Lester Lynch in "Joan and the Bells." They treat the texts with care and have the right oratorio-style investment in making words and music seem inseparable.

"Poor Peter" uses the composer's texts to songs inspired by William Butler Yeats. They are colorfully quaint, vivid with with echoes of the Celtic Revival. Yeats is directly the source of a piece for chorus without soloists, "A Prayer for My Daughter." Though it's true all settings of poetry in some sense violate how the poet intended his work to engage with readers, Getty's "Prayer for My Daughter" seems much too focused on "colorizing" every phrase of Yeats. The poet's intensity of feeling, carefully controlled in the original, is here a cue for heightened expression. Performances of Getty's setting can potentially attract new admirers of Yeats' poem; one hopes they will go back to that poem as soon as possible and claim it for themselves — and for Yeats.

"Joan and the Bells" is a somewhat attractive uplifting of Joan of Arc's fatal encounter with her enemies foreign and domestic. I find Getty's persistence in polishing the saint's halo a little wearying on the whole, though competently crafted.

On the other hand, "The Little Match Girl" strikes me as wholly mesmerizing. With the excellent Munich forces conducted by Fisch, this musical version of the depressing Andersen tale fully enters the spirit of the sentimental miracle that lifts the urchin's dying soul to heaven. Getty is skillful at setting prose: The rhythms of sentences draw from him a special gift for apt phrasing.

Handling of the orchestra is wholly sensitive to the expressive burden carried by the chorus. Touches of "mickey-mousing" that might be annoying elsewhere seem inoffensive here: Brass and drums accompany the little match girl's assumption into heaven where she meets her grandmother, "for they were with God." Ethereal harp indicates that the girl's body, discovered frozen on New Year's Day, is a mere remnant of her essence, which is finally comfortable in heaven.

Obvious? Perhaps. But the spell cast by "The Little Match Girl" was too complete by the work's final minutes for me to find such moments corny. This piece exalts its material credibly. Everything fits. "The Little Match Girl" would be worth taking up by professional choruses and orchestras everywhere.

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