NPR logo Pitch Perfect: 3 Must-Hear Vocal Albums

Now Playing

Pitch Perfect: 3 Must-Hear Vocal Albums

A late 15th-century icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the Saints of Rostov adorns the cover of a new album of Russian Orthodox Church music by the vocal ensemble Conspirare. i

A late 15th-century icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the Saints of Rostov adorns the cover of a new album of Russian Orthodox Church music by the vocal ensemble Conspirare. Harmonia Mundi hide caption

toggle caption Harmonia Mundi
A late 15th-century icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the Saints of Rostov adorns the cover of a new album of Russian Orthodox Church music by the vocal ensemble Conspirare.

A late 15th-century icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the Saints of Rostov adorns the cover of a new album of Russian Orthodox Church music by the vocal ensemble Conspirare.

Harmonia Mundi

The human voice, the true original instrument, is still the most expressive and personal of all. It's one reason more than 42.5 million Americans sing in choirs, and why we seem to be hardwired to tell our stories through song. It also probably explains why I'm a vocal music junkie, eagerly pawing over the operas, recitals and choir albums that land on my desk and in my download folder. Below are three recent releases well worth repeated listening — an evocative glimpse of traditional Russian Orthodox choral music, a blistering account of Beethoven's Solemn Mass and a perfectly ripened example of the kind of post-Romantic opera that blossomed in early 20th-century Vienna.

Pitch Perfect: 3 Must-Hear Vocal Albums

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
02Mass for soloists, chorus & orchestra in D major ("Missa Solemnis"), Op. 123 [Gloria]
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/290234365/290247313" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Buy Featured Music

    Song
    Mass for soloists, chorus & orchestra in D major ("Missa Solemnis"), Op. 123 [Gloria]
    Album
    Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
    Artist
    John Eliot Gardiner
    Label
    SDG (Soli Deo Gloria)
    Released
    2013

    Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

John Eliot Gardiner conducts Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis'

  • Song: Mass for soloists, chorus & orchestra in D major ("Missa Solemnis"), Op. 123 [Gloria]
  • from Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
  • by John Eliot Gardiner

Simply put, after listening to this performance of Beethoven's Solemn Mass, you don't exactly feel solemn. That's partly because the music brims with a searching, surging dramatic urgency, and partly because no recording of it blasts with as much ferocity and sheer excitement as this new one from conductor John Eliot Gardiner and company. The opening of the Gloria unleashes a tornado of sound from the orchestra and chorus, culminating on the word "omnipotens," marked triple forte, with trombones blaring and the astonishing Monteverdi Choir in full cry as if their lives (and their salvation) depended on it. Even in the quieter moments, Beethoven seems to explore rather than affirm faith. The somber prayer for peace at the opening of Gardiner's dimly lit Agnus Dei eventually falls to a military assault of drums and trumpets, as if Beethoven brought Napoleon's 1809 bombardment of Vienna directly into the score.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Album
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Artist
John Eliot Gardiner
Label
SDG (Soli Deo Gloria)
Released
2013

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

The Sacred Spirit of Russia, by Conspirare.
18Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age, for chorus, Op. 40/5
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/290234365/290247967" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Buy Featured Music

    Song
    Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age, for chorus, Op. 40/5
    Album
    The Sacred Spirit of Russia
    Artist
    Conspirare
    Label
    Harmonia Mundi
    Released
    2014

    Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Conspirare: The Sacred Spirit of Russia

  • Song: Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age, for chorus, Op. 40/5
  • from The Sacred Spirit of Russia
  • by Conspirare

It's a long way from Texas to Mother Russia but director Craig Hella Johnson and his Austin-based choir Conspirare close the gap considerably with this impressive new album. The Sacred Spirit of Russia envelopes you in the haunting tradition of centuries-old a cappella Orthodox church music, an otherworldly combination of vocal colors and textures, with emotions ranging from solemnity (Alexander Kastalsky's "Today the Virgin") to euphoria (Alexander Gretchaninov's "Glory"). A high point in the album is Vladimir Martynov's ethereal Beatitudes, where sopranos and altos soar above a drone of humming. A low point, quite literally, is the extraordinary "Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age" by Pavel Tchesnokov. The soul of Russian Orthodox music lies in its bass singers, and Conspirare is blessed with a massive bottom end, anchored by the subterranean sounds of Glenn Miller, the group's resident basso profondo and soloist in this piece. His lowest notes are as much seismic rumbles as pitches.

Buy Featured Music

Song
The Sacred Spirit of Russia
Album
The Sacred Spirit of Russia
Artist
Conspirare
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2014

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten.
18Die Gezeichneten, opera in 3 acts [Act 2. Carlotta! Geliebte!]
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/290234365/290249882" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Buy Featured Music

    Song
    Die Gezeichneten, opera in 3 acts [Act 2. Carlotta! Geliebte!]
    Album
    Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"
    Artist
    James Conlon
    Label
    Bridge
    Released
    2013

    Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

James Conlon conducts Franz Schreker's 'Die Gezeichneten'

  • Song: Die Gezeichneten, opera in 3 acts [Act 2. Carlotta! Geliebte!]
  • from Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"
  • by James Conlon

Sex, violence and physical deformity — now we're talking opera. Those are all in the gutsy mix that propels Franz Schreker's opulent Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized). A key figure in the wildly blossoming Viennese music scene at the dawn of the 20th century, Schreker remains unjustly neglected today. But not by conductor James Conlon, who's recorded two albums of Schreker's orchestral music, and now this opera, drawn from U.S. premiere performances he led in 2010 at the LA Opera. Robert Brubaker handles Schreker's punishingly high-flying tenor lines deftly, starring as a 16th century Genoese nobleman, a hunchback who attracts a beautiful painter, played with voluptuous restraint by soprano Anja Kampe. Their second act love duet, in which she captures his soul on canvas, is among the most ravishing stretches of operatic music — an intoxicating brew of fading Romanticism, impressionistic colorings and pungent harmonies. Conlon — who has also championed the music of Schreker's superb contemporary Alexander Zemlinsky — conducts the opera as if he'd written it.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"
Album
Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"
Artist
James Conlon
Label
Bridge
Released
2013

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Purchase Featured Music

Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"

Purchase Music

Buy Featured Music

Album
Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten "The Stigmatized"
Artist
James Conlon
Label
Bridge
Released
2013

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

 

The Sacred Spirit of Russia

Purchase Music

Buy Featured Music

Album
The Sacred Spirit of Russia
Artist
Conspirare
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2014

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

 

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Purchase Music

Buy Featured Music

Album
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Artist
John Eliot Gardiner
Label
SDG (Soli Deo Gloria)
Released
2013

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.