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CD Review

Morten Lauridsen

Mid-Winter Songs

  • Les chansons des roses
  • Nocturnes
  • I will lift up mine eyes
  • come let us sing unto the Lord
  • Ave dulcissima Maria
Andrew Lumsden, organ
Morten Lauridsen, piano
Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA67580 65:17 DDD
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A narrow, but often productive road.

I've written about Morten Lauridsen before (RCM 19705), and this CD duplicates some of that earlier program. Lauridsen, along with fellow-Californian Eric Whitacre, has become one of the hottest tickets in contemporary choral music. Both write in basically a conservative tonal language, and both run the danger of reducing their music to one or two tropes. Their music risks becoming a compendium of mannerisms.

All that said, each individual Lauridsen piece is beautiful, even though his body of work tends toward the same kind of beauty. You can expect to find widely-spaced chords, slow tempo, slow-moving bass lines, a fondness for pedal points and chords against which one part runs free – sort of like the beginning of Appalachian Spring, which Mortensen's music often resembles. In other words, his music doesn't range all that widely, and a programmer must exercise a bit of care when planning a CD, otherwise a listener may feel as if he's stuck in an upscale mall. This Layton has done pretty well.

You really do have to give Lauridsen props for his choice of texts. First-rate literature attracts him. In addition to the Bible, the works here use poems by Graves, Rilke, Agee, and Neruda, and all very well indeed.

Clearly, however, Lauridsen has worked for his style. He has from the beginning a knack for creating beautiful choral sound, although it takes a very good choir to realize the beauty of the writing. The earliest things on the CD, the two psalm settings (121 and 95) come from 1970. In their sonic cleanness and clarity, despite some sharp dissonance, and in their insistence on clear ideas, they remind me of Halsey Stevens, with whom Lauridsen studied. To a great extent, Lauridsen commits to choral music, as the Renaissance masters did. This is the heart of his catalogue, as the string quartet is to Bartók's, and no apologies. No need to write a symphony when you can write this. Psalm 95, with a virtuosic organ part, especially sounds to me far away from later Lauridsen. It does a quick dance, with lots of closely imitative counterpoint which intensifies its rhythmic energy. Psalm 121, as befits its text, meditates more, with gorgeous chords built from fourths and fifths, rather than from the usual thirds and sixths (think of something like Hindemith). I find both psalm settings heart-stoppingly beautiful. The Ave, dulcissima Maria (2005) for men's choir and tuned finger cymbals keeps that quality thirty-five years later. It's difficult as the devil, since the a cappella men's choir must keep pitch with the finger cymbals, and that checks in only every once in a while.

Lauridsen's music typically goes for a note of rapt contemplation. However, Mid-Winter Songs, a choral cycle to poems by Graves, gives you something more disturbed and agitated. Despite its five separate numbers, it hangs together beautifully. Motives from earlier movements show up in later ones, sometimes at the level of the textual phrase. The poems, rich in classical allusion, often take winter (or, in two cases, imply winter – winter about to come, winter just gone) as their setting. Really, however, the poems are about love, sex, and death. "Lament for Pasiphaë" refers to the daughter of Helios, the sun Titan, who committed adultery with a bull. The poet, however, pleads for her as "beyond good and evil" – a natural force. The music begins with bright stabs from the strings to the words "Dying sun, shine warm a little longer." "Like Snow" keeps the image of woman as life force, as does the quietly beautiful "She tells her love while half asleep," with its lovely refrain, "Despite the snow, / Despite the falling snow." My favorite of the cycle is the last, "Intercession in Late October," telling of the death of Midas, again praying, this time quietly, for Cronos (time) to "Spare him a little longer" (in a transformed recurrence of the idea which opened the cycle) "For his clean hands and love-submissive heart."

To me, the German Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the best French poetry of the twentieth century, right up there with Paul Eluard. Les chansons des roses, from 1983, takes five Rilke lyrics, all revolving around the poet's favorite image of the rose. It seems that Lauridsen has modeled his cycle on Hindemith's masterful 6 Chansons (also to Rilke's French poems) and yields very little to the earlier score. One finds fleet Gallic wit and cozy warmth in Lauridsen's settings. Two of them – "Contre qui, rose" and "La rose complète" – exemplify Lauridsen's typical manner, and fine examples they are. Here, however, enough variety sets them off as something quite special. Again, a weak-sister choir shouldn't waste its time. Lauridsen's cruelest trick is to follow, without a break, four a cappella settings of fairly complex harmonies with one accompanied by piano in the ending tonality of the previous song, natch. Even a professional choir would find keeping pitch difficult, but that's what recordings are for, I guess.

The most recent work on the CD, Nocturnes (2005), also disappoints the most. It sets three poems – by Rilke, Neruda, and Agee, respectively. The Rilke and the Agee have piano accompaniment. Both sound pretty much the same – the same kind of declamation, basic harmonies, and little part-writing tricks that show Lauridsen heading for the "safe place" way too often. The Rilke setting lets the listener recall the genuine poetic penetration of Les chansons des roses without providing any itself. Furthermore, Lauridsen sets Agee's "Sure on this shining night" and thus goes up against Samuel Barber's masterpiece of a song. Lauridsen obviously likes to take chances. This time, he loses. Indeed, he sounds like he's phoned it in. However, the Neruda "Soneto de la noche" (Sonnet LXXXIX from 100 Love Sonnets) stands as a shining exception. Despite the standard Lauridsen harmonies and part-writing strategies, this actually extends the idiom. The declamation takes on Hispanic dance rhythms, and that, strangely enough, makes all the difference. It changes the declamation.

Stephen Layton and Polyphony, a thoroughly professional group though not normally one of my favorites, turns in an inspired performance of everything. Indeed, either my memory is bad or they've transcended themselves. The ensemble is clearer, the diction sharper, the attacks less spongy, and the intonation breathtaking. The huge pits that Lauridsen digs for choirs to fall into at the start of the final Chansons des roses song and throughout the Ave, dulcissima Maria they handle mostly without a bump. Think of the added pressure with the composer present at the piano and on the finger cymbals. I think this the best CD they've issued, and Hyperion's sound is just about perfect.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz