december 2009

Christopher Parkening and Kathleen Battle: What they hold back in musical embroidery is a gift to listeners in the form of heightened emphasis on the exalted poetry Christmas has inspired in songwriters through the ages.

A Restrained Exultation

By David McGee

Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening
Sony Classical

To the energy and intellect the marked his playing in his early professional career, Christopher Parkening has over time (notably since returning from a self-imposed retirement in the early ‘80s, during which he became a devout Christian) added restraint as another essential ingredient to his approach. He uses it as effectively as the late film director Stanley Kubrick used silence, making it an identifiable element of his art, a near-sensuous presence as a defining feature of the soundscapes he constructs with strings. It is one of the many compelling aspects of his exceptional pairing with the temperamental lyric soprano Kathleen Battle on the seasonal fare comprising Angels’ Glory. (Battles’ uber-diva behavior has made her persona non grata in the opera world, and for several years now—since being fired from the 1994 production of “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the New York Metropolitan Opera—the announcement of which was greeted with applause by the other cast members—she has confined her performances to the recording studio and concert stage; moreover, she has branched out from opera and classical to sing pop, jazz, folk songs, lullabies, what have you, collaborating with the likes of Al Jarreau and Herbie Hancock, assaying the work of Gershwin, Stevie Wonder, et al.)

Recorded in 1996 in the cavernous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Angels’ Glory, featuring only Ms. Battles’s expressive voice, Mr. Parkening’s sensitive guitar, and both artists’ obvious commitment to the songs’ messages, is about as stirring a Yuletide album as anyone has conceived—precisely for that admirable quality of restraint, on the part of singer and accompanist alike. It’s evident from the start, with the delicate cascade of notes from Parkening’s guitar introducing “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s there in Battle’s tender vocal, in the subtle rising and falling of notes, and in the way she pulls back after soaring every so fleetingly in the chorus. Similarly, in John Jacob Niles’s “I Wonder As I Wander,” Battle sounds awestruck in her contemplation of Jesus’s crucifixion “for poor, or’n’ry people,” and so sings Niles’s lyrics seemingly in a state of breathless humility, Parkening strumming soft, intermittent chords behind her, so discreet and meditative he’s more shadow than substance. Sometimes, though, Parkening is both duet partner and expositor: on the affecting “Gesù Bambino,” by Pietro A. Yon, he dutifully follows the melody line behind Battle’s lilting, dignified reading, until the chorus, when he gracefully steps out to sound the signature repeating two-note phrase in the choruses that signals a dramatic shift in the song’s mood and sets the stage for Battle’s final, piercing flight on the closing verse. The material is admirably eclectic, reflecting an international view of Christianity’s most holy occasion in songs from the Catalan, French, Polish, Chilean, Welsh and West Indian traditions (a global crossing template the pair favored on their 1990 pairing, Pleasures Of Their Company and which both have explored in their solo work), with an arresting rendition of the beloved German carol, “Silent Night,” closing the festivities on a note of austere, tender beauty in the delicate balance between voice and guitar on the one hand, exultation and introspection on the other. And lest anyone think this a bit too muted a seasonal celebration, Battle and Parkening do cut loose a bit on the spiritual medley titled “Mary and Her Baby Chile,” comprised of “O Mary, Where Is Your Baby?”, “O, Mary and the Baby, Sweet Lamb” and “Ain’t That a Rockin’ All Night,” the first and third portions being tantalizingly funky workouts, driving and righteously rhythmic in their own spare fashion. What Mr. Parkening and Ms. Battle hold back in musical embroidery is a gift to listeners in the form of heightened emphasis on the exalted poetry Christmas has inspired in songwriters through the ages. It has rarely been so dramatically underscored in so few bold strokes as it is here.

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