Sunday, February 1, 2004

Conlon, chorus sing out

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati May Festival, James Conlon, conductor; May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, director; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano; Donnie Ray Albert, baritone; Michael Chertock, organ
Telarc; $15.99;
It's no secret that May Festival conductor James Conlon is a champion of unappreciated composers and unknown music.

So it should be no surprise that Conlon's first album for Telarc with the May Festival Chorus, released Tuesday, is the world premiere of a forgotten and unfinished oratorio that had gathered dust for 117 years.

The first recording of Franz Liszt's St. Stanislaus, based on the martyrdom of Poland's patron saint, is an impressive feat, not only because it sheds light on a fascinating work, but because it unveils surprisingly beautiful music.

The May Festival forces recorded its existing two scenes (one and four) last year, immediately after performing the premiere in Music Hall.

Much of it is a real find. It has the sumptuous orchestral writing of Liszt's tone poems, glorious choral writing and some fine dramatic scenes for soloists. Still, it's hard to overcome the fact that the two middle scenes are missing. Liszt, a 19th-century piano virtuoso and composer, left the oratorio unfinished at his death in 1886. (To his credit, scholar Paul Munson, who pieced it together from scattered manuscripts, did not attempt to finish the oratorio himself.)

The subject is a political drama about the confrontation between Bishop Stanislaus and King Boleslaw II. The king murdered Stanislaus in 1079 and subsequently regretted his action.

The choruses are extraordinary. "Beschutz uns, O Vater!" (Protect us, O Father), has a dark, spiritual beauty, and the May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, sings with earnest expression and rich homogeneity of sound. The concluding "Salve Polonia!" (Hail Poland) is deeply stirring.

In her scene as the Bishop's mother, mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson performs her radiant aria, "Mein Sohn," with spine tingling emotion against a backdrop of brass fanfares. Donnie Ray Albert, a baritone, is utterly convincing in the powerful roles of Stanislaus and the penitent ruler, King Boleslaw.

One of the highlights is a sprawling orchestral interlude based on the Polish National Anthem. Conlon, who is known for being a champion of music by Alexander Zemlinsky and composers of the Holocaust, leads with affection and conviction for this equally little-known music.


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