BRUBECK: Beloved Son. Pange Lingua Variations.
Voice of the Holy Spirit
(Tongues of Fire). Regret for Strings and Solo Piano.
Alan Opie, baritone; Thomasin Trezise, soprano; London Oratory
School Schola Beloved Son);
Alan Opie, baritone; London Voices;
Dave Brubeck Quartet; London Symphony Orch/Russell Gloyd, cond.
TELARC 2CD 80621 (2 CDs) (DDD) (M) TT: 2 hrs. 12 min.

Brubeck has composed classical works with jazz elements at least since the Sixties. His first large choral piece, The Gates of Justice, suffers from, mainly, inexperience - routinely sending soloists into their topmost range, over-complicating the texture beyond the ability of players to distinguish inner lines, and so on. Despite this, however, the oratorio gave plenty of hope that Brubeck would work through these problems. The Gates of Justice was far more than an excuse for a cynical promoter to cash in on Brubeck's popularity as a performer, unlike, say, EMI and McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio. For one thing, Brubeck knew something about how to write paragraphs extended beyond those of song or, in the case of jazz playing, choruses. One also sensed a mind constantly exploring musical connections between such superficially disparate things as blues and Jewish cantorial singing.

Beloved Son, a three-movement oratorio on the Passion, improves on The Gates of Justice in just about every way. He handles large forces (orchestra, jazz quartet, choir, children's choir) clearly. The jazz parts fit their classical surroundings better than in the earlier work, mainly however because their jazz voice is minimized, rather than because the classical parts swing in a jazzier way. The texture may get at times complex, but it never becomes incomprehensible. Furthermore, one sees a greater variety of texture. The Gates of Justice leaned a bit too heavily on Brubeck's largely block-chordal piano style. To a great extent, Brubeck controlled it through a very Milhaud-like orchestration. In Beloved Son, one still hears Milhaud occasionally, mainly in the treatment of the strings, but Brubeck's more fluid texture minimizes the influence. The solo writing is also more varied, although Brubeck retains a fondness for wide upward leaps at emotional climaxes. Above all, the rhetorical progress of each movement has become assured. All three movements run over ten minutes apiece, unlike the smaller, separate numbers of The Gates of Justice, and yet they almost never seem too long. The first two movements, at least, carry you along in a semi-symphonic grip. Brubeck comes up with short, memorable ideas and manages to transform them as the piece goes on. In the first movement especially, the children's chorus comes up with a bone-simple harmonic progression (i-IV, for those of you who like to keep score) on the words "Abba Father" and repeats it quite a bit, but always with a twist so that it sounds fresh each time. Indeed, the level of invention -- the sheer quality of ideas -- in the first two movements rises very high indeed and doesn't flag.The problem comes in the third movement. The shortest of the three, it nevertheless seems to go on the longest. It's not terrible, by any means, but the quality does drop off. One also finds a certain derivativeness in the ideas, mainly from Bach (the Italian Concerto and the sinfonia to Cantata No. 29). The family look of these ideas doesn't bother me, but the stylistic jar with what has come before does. We go from a very personal idiom to a conventional one, and Brubeck hasn't completely made those conventions his own. Because of improvisational elements in the score, I'm not sure whether to fault the writing or the performance. Essentially, the variation technique so outstanding in the first two movements just about disappears for blunt repetition. The piece ends with chorus after chorus of "He is risen" from chorus, with jazz quartet taking the lead. If the quartet were having a better day, would I still find the ending so weak? No idea.

The Pange Lingua Variations, for chorus, orchestra, and jazz quartet show less musical ambition and even greater assurance. This is one of Brubeck's most consistent works. It falls into six large movements, many of them subsected into discrete units. The jazz parts and the classical parts work well together without trying to deny anything essential about their language. The jazz parts are definitely jazz, the classical parts definitely classical. For this alone, I'm high on the piece. Variation technique, of course, lies at the root of jazz improvisation, but Brubeck shapes the setting for improvisation beautifully. This may be the most satisfying piece on the album.

On the other hand, Voice of the Holy Spirit (Tongues of Fire) is the least, at least as far as the integration of the classical elements with the jazz goes. Indeed, I'm not quite sure why Brubeck included the jazz sections at all, except to give his quartet something to do. Again, however, this could be due to the quartet's particular improvisation. There's nothing wrong with it per se, but it does break the rhetorical limits of the piece - a bit like Dali painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The classical parts are often very lovely and at times even powerful, particularly at times when Brubeck writes most simply. His chorales, like the final "Benediction" for example, move me the most of any others. However, the oratorio also runs fairly long and, unlike Beloved Son, has no dramatic story to tell, at least not to me. I suspect this work may come from Brubeck's deepest beliefs. I deny neither its sincerity nor at times its interest. But at its end, I simply don't care, at my humanistic remove, and the music doesn't make me.

The least complicated piece on the program, Regret, for strings and (toward the end) piano solo, sounds like a jazz improvisation written out. Indeed, some of the string accompaniment sounds like left-hand figures for the piano. Brubeck takes a very simple idea (half-step up, half-step down from an anchoring pitch) and runs it for eight minutes. He gets mileage from the melodic idea. The danger he runs - and I'm very surprised by this - comes from a certain immobility of rhythm. Bach's famous violin chaconne runs the same risk. It's not enough to wreck the piece, but Brubeck did make me wonder whether he would vary his phrasing before a breakdown. He takes the solo, one of the best moments on the entire CD, seamlessly integrated into the overall classical context without losing its jazz character. In its wistful "feel," the piece kind of reminds me of Brubeck's "Brandenburg Gate."

The performances are quite good and become amazing when you learn (from Nick Jones's excellent liner notes) that these forces recorded over two hours' worth of non-trivial music, probably new to them, in four days. Baritone solo Alan Opie sings with gorgeous tone, though a little stiffly at times. The chorus sings with passion and mostly understandable diction -- important since Telarc (for reasons of their own) decided not to include libretti with a mostly vocal album. Russell Gloyd -- Brubeck's preferred conductor -- leads with an authority born of years of familiarity. The performances aren't perfect, of course. Regret would have benefited from sharper rhythmic delineation from the strings (at times, phrases of definite rhythm blur into mere slurs), but in general Gloyd keeps things moving and complex textures clear. The recording is Telarc's usual outstanding.

S.G.S. (July 2004)