Music for a Time of War contains four 20th Century classical compositions based on the theme of war. The album contains nine tracks (Sinfonia da Requiem and Symphony No. 4 are divided into separate tracks for each movement) and totals just over 78 minutes in length.
The program begins with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, originally the first of Two Contemplations, composed in 1906 (along with its counterpart Central Park in the Dark). The second composition is The Wound-Dresser, American minimalist composer John Adams’ portrayal of Walt Whitman’s experience as a medic during the American Civil War. The program continues with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), commissioned by the Japanese government to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. The performance ends with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4, composed during 1931–1934.
The album marked the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s first recording in eight years as well as conductor Carlos Kalmar’s first with the orchestra. The recording is the first of four albums to be produced by the Symphony and PentaTone through the end of the 2014–2015 season, all under Kalmar’s artistic leadership.
Music for a Time of War was recorded in Stereo and 5 Channel DSD Surround Sound by the Sound Mirror team. Blanton Alspaugh served as producer, John Newton and Jesse Lewis were the recording engineers, mastering was done by Jesse Brayman.
The album was cited in the Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, Classical, 2012 (Blanton Alspaugh) and received two additional Grammy Nominations for Best Orchestral Performance, 2012 and Best Engineered Album, Classical, 2012.
Jeffrey Work – Trumpet
Sanford Sylvan – Baritone
Jun Iawsaki – Violin
Carlos Kalmar – Conductor
Total time: 01:17:59
|Original Recording Format|
John Newton & Jesse Lewis (Soundmirror, Boston)
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon
Pyramix, Merging Technologies
|Recording Type & Bit Rate||
|Release Date||April 4, 2022|
International Record Review
Music for a Time of War is a compelling and inspired example of intelligent program planning, and it’s extremely well played by the Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar. The live recorded sound is exceptionally vibrant.
The Absolute Sound
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.
The liner notes were silent on the issue of pacifism. The album’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.
Multichannel Album of the Month
What a pleasure to again have a new recording from our excellent local symphony. The Oregon Symphony is one of the largest arts organizations in the Northwest, one of the largest orchestras in the nation, and this is their first of a planned series of albums for PentaTone. Conductor Carlos Kalmar, who hails from Uruguay and conducted for many years in Vienna, said in an NPR interview that he didn’t put together the unusual program (which the Symphony played in their recent Carnegie Hall debut) due to the country being in a war right now, but keeping in mind that the human race is always at war somewhere with someone.
The program of four works by 20th century composers is well-chosen to offer great variety in sound and compositional techniques, as well as provide a very moving and touching meditation on the idea of war and its awful consequences. The opening short Ives work for solo trumpet, four quarreling woodwinds and some strings starts things off with the question—perhaps of the meaning of existence—but with the heavy philosophy mitigated by Ives’ off-beat humor, making it all less tragic-sounding. The words sung by the baritone in John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser come from Walt Whitman’s experiences in the battlefield hospitals of the Civil War. It is an evocation of nursing the sick and dying with the greatest human compassion.
The other two works on the program get more symphonic/orchestral. The Britten Sinfonia had been originally commissioned by the Japanese government, who perhaps understandably refused it. Written in 1940 while the English composer was in the U.S. as London was burning, the work uses titles from the Latin Mass for its three movements: Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, and Requiem Aeternam. It has orchestral imitations of some of the sounds of war, such as the drone of aircraft engines and the dot-dashing of radio signals. The third movement offers some respite from the horrors of war. I’ve always found this work my least-liked of Britten’s, but the Oregon Symphony’s moving recording makes a strong case in its favor.
Vaughan Williams was known for his primarily pastoral three symphonies and other works when he shocked some British listeners with the premiere of his Fourth Symphony in 1935. Its opening is similar to the brash announcement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the entire work is full of tension, dissonance and drama. The composer himself recorded the work in 1937—his only commercial recording. It’s not really a “wartime symphony.” but nevertheless fits into this program perfectly with its sonic equivalent of an avalanche of power, and the finale does seem to sound a note of triumph that is fitting.
Recorded during a live concert in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony’s home in Portland, the rich surround sonics predict a superb combination of excellent performances together with first-rate fidelity for their new series. Every detail is well represented; perhaps better than in the actual concert hall (as also with the Telarc recordings of the San Francisco Symphony). The audience is amazingly quiet, or else the engineers did a subtle job of digital noise removal on the recordings. Without the applause and pauses between the works—of a live concert, one better gets into the relationships between them.
Music for a Time of War, a PentaTone Classics album featuring the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar, brings together four powerful, moving compositions that in some way were inspired by war, conflict, and strife. While many albums bring together the wealth of music written during or immediately following the Second World War, Kalmar’s program is more varied and is made quite successful because of it.
The album opens with Ives’ solitary, isolating Unanswered Question, which, though not directly brought about by a war, nevertheless addresses conflict within the score. Walt Whitman’s wrenching account of his medical duties during the Civil War is set to great effect by John Adams. Baritone Sanford Sylvan’s performance here is as gripping as Whitman’s words: deep, resonant tone, clear diction, and a seamless blend with the orchestra characterise Sylvan’s singing. More directly inspired by specific military events is militaristic and evocative Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.
The program closes with Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony which, though completed in 1931, the composer denied it being any sort of depiction of military buildup. Perhaps in retrospect we find things in the sometimes savage, frenzied score that remind us of the events of the time.
Throughout the album, Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony prove they can easily stand alongside the world’s great orchestras. Their sound is powerful and engaging, their technique is polished and effortless, and the intricate control of balance makes listening quite enjoyable. This is certainly an album worth investigating. 4 1/2 Star Rating.
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