Donald Rosenberg
June 1, 2010

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s newest recording vibrantly illustrates Dominick Argento’s ability to merge myriad artistic sources. Jonah and the Whale was inspired by an Albertus Pictor painting on the ceiling of a church in Härkeberga, Sweden. Scored for chorus, instrumental nonet, narrator and soloists, the work exemplifies the American composer’s colorful and discerning aesthetic, as well as his heightened gifts in the vocal realm.

Argento drew the texts for his affecting 1973 creation from poems, sacred passages and other materials dating from the fourth to the 19th century. Aside from Psalm 130 (“De profundis clamavi ad te”) and cries of “Kyrie eleison” by the beleaguered people of Nineveh, the words are sung in Argento’s English translations.

The familiar tale of the irritable prophet and his adventures on land, sea and inside the belly of the whale is told in 11 movements of expressive musical images. Argento employs the dignified tones of three trombones to paint the whale’s personality, conjures Jonah’s emotional statements by way of 12-tone techniques and gives the chorus assignments of multi-hued variety.

The performance, led with fine sense of balance and pacing by Andrew Clark, is a coup for the Boston ensemble, whose players are vivid and subtle as they negotiate the contrasting sonorities in Argento’s score. Their articulate collaborators are the Providence Singers, narrator Thomas Oakes, tenor Daniel Norman (a fresh, urgent Jonah) and bass Daniel Cole (imposing as the Voice of God).

- Donald Rosenberg

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