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CD Review

The Passing of the Year

  • Eric Whitacre:
  • 3 Flower Songs
  • 5 Hebrew Love Songs 1,2
  • A Boy and a Girl
  • Sleep
  • Jonathan Dove: The Passing of the Year 1
  • Morten Lauridsen: Les chansons des Roses 1
  • Jean Belmont-Ford: If Music be the Food of Love
1 Christine Chang, piano
2 Jennifer Cho, violin
Antioch Chamber Ensemble/Joshua Copeland
MSR Classics MS1315 66:15
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Summary for the Busy Executive: First-class repertoire in good performances.

I really liked the choice of repertoire – a decent sample of the contemporary choral scene. Choral singers probably know Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen best.

Eric Whitacre, a current hot ticket, studied with John Corigliano and David Diamond, among others. Even at a young age, he has written choral pieces that have every chance to become permanent entries on the list of What Every Choir Should Know. I find him uneven, in that I catch him falling back on manner in lieu of substance every once in a while, and often his signature musical move, dense chord clusters, rather lame, reminding me of a pianist putting both forearms on the keyboard. However, that's not true of the works (or even of the clusters in those works) here, which also show a range of expression broader than usually appears in programs by this composer.

The 3 Flower Songs I believe came early in Whitacre's career. Most of the technical shtick he uses later are either absent or in embryo. Quite apparent, however, are his ability to suss out great texts and writers and his penchant and gift for direct expression – a hard way to go, since all your ideas lie in the open, in a take-it-or-leave it atmosphere. Here, you want to take it. I especially liked the Lorca setting, with its hint of fandango. It has more notes than usual with Whitacre, but none are de trop.

The 5 Hebrew Love Songs also depart from Whitacre's norm – more notes, more counterpoint, more pointed rhythms. The texts are translations of Hebrew poems by Whitacre's wife, the Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann. My favorite describes falling snow, where choral voices seem to individuate at random each snow flake as it gently drops from the sky, to stunning effect.

"Sleep" and "A Boy and a Girl" by Charles Anthony Silvestri and Octavio Paz, respectively, have become contemporary choral classics. I've sung both. I love the lyrics Silvestri, a poet based in Kansas, wrote especially for Whitacre, who responded with a subtly-varying chorale of gorgeous chord progressions. Restricted in its dynamic range, I doubt it rises above a mezzo-piano. It beautifully depicts the state of falling into sleep. The piece lasts about four minutes and keeps its interest, despite its basically strophic nature – Whitacre's exposed style pushed to extremes. "A Boy and a Girl" ("Los Novios" – bride and groom – in Spanish) by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, is generally the same type of piece as "Sleep." The poem describes a young couple lying on the beach, eating fruit, and gently making out and then compares them to their burial after death – a sudden flash of insight. It's a profound poem pulled off with simple, direct language, and Whitacre responds in kind, with essentially just chords, often with sharp dissonances (at low volume). The dissonance level seems higher to me here than in "Sleep," which makes momentary resolution into relative consonance all the more affective. The setting to me also introduces a tension and yearning not necessarily in the text itself. A great setting of a great poem.

Morten Lauridsen has received much official recognition as a choral composer. Indeed, I know of no work by him other than choral. Like Randall Thompson, he has a gift for choral sonority, although, unlike Thompson, he needs a good choir for his music to come across. I find his idiom a kind of choral interpretation of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring style – melodic, mildly dissonant, lush chords, slow-moving, with great care for the placement of each note within a texture. He too can fall back on manner, and his expressive resource seems narrower than Whitacre's. However, he has written some of the most sonically beautiful choral music of his time. Les Chansons des roses sets French poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and stand a bit outside Lauridsen's usual run. I suspect these, too, belong to a period before, say, 2000. Lauridsen also shows great taste in his selection of texts, since to my mind, Rilke may be the greatest poet (and in two languages) never to get a Nobel. A neo-Romantic analogue to Hindemith's classic 6 Chansons (texts also by Rilke), the suite has five movements: "En une seule fleur" (a single flower); "Contre qui, rose" (against whom, rose); "De ton rêve trop plein" (too full of your dream); "La rose complete" (the perfect rose); "Dirait-on" (so they say). The sensuous sounds of Rilke's French are mirrored in Lauridsen's harmonies and textures. The melodies are vaguely Barberesque – suave and tenderly melancholic, generally speaking. No pushover, the score demands a very good choir indeed. All but the last movement are a cappella. But Lauridsen plays a dirty trick by bringing in the piano on in the last bars of "La rose complete" and continuing it into "Dirait-on" – furthermore, on the notes of the choir. So the choir has to maintain pitch through some fancy modulations. I've sung this as well, and the opportunities for the choir to go flat are myriad.

I never heard of Jonathan Dove before, so I've looked him up. Actually, he's been quite successful in Britain, particularly in opera. He studied with Robin Holloway at Cambridge. My only objection to The Passing of the Year is a trivial one concerning the title. Sure, he has poems on summer and winter, but they don't seem to be in any order (he begins with summer and ends on New Year's) and there are non-seasonal poems in there as well. Again, he has chosen good poets, including Dickinson, Blake, and Tennyson among others. I really want to listen to more work, since I enjoyed this one so much. He demonstrates a near-Brittenish sensitivity to words, although I don't yet hear a personal voice, as I do with Whitacre and Lauridsen, beyond a favoring of certain musical devices: ostinato working to generate cross-rhythm; strong, independent counterpoint. The ostinati usually fall to the piano and give brilliance to the sound. Although I like the entire work, I favor his strong setting of Thomas Nashe's "Farewell, earth's bliss," for double choir. Here, the ostinato lies in one of the choirs (on the words, "Lord, have mercy on us"), and if we consider the gloom of the text ("I am sick, I must die"), the sound is appropriately darker.

Based in Kansas, composer Jean Belmont-Ford (a.k.a. Jean Belmont) has caught the attention of major choral conductors. Restoration poet and MP Col. Henry Heveningham's "If music be the food of love" (a rhyme-and-metered simplification of Duke Orsino's opening speech in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) is also set, most famously, by Henry Purcell. I can note little more of Belmont's music other than its attraction, melodiousness, and capable technique, and I understand its success. However, it doesn't grip me as hard as the other items on the program do.

I have mixed feelings about the Antioch Chamber Ensemble, a group of twelve singers, who deservedly have garnered praise aplenty. I don't doubt their musical chops at all. Just to get through this music (especially the slow, quiet Whitacres) marks significant achievement. They laugh at Lauridsen's trap at the end of La Chanson, landing on the pitches Lauridsen's piano echoes (OK, a little off, but if I hadn't told you, you probably wouldn't notice). At least here it doesn't sound like a school-marmish correction of pitch, as it often can. They also phrase flexibly and subtly, like a choral Mathias Goerne. They control dynamics absolutely and exhibit an impressive array of distinctions at extremely low volume. They not only can crescendo over the long haul, but (it's harder) decrescendo.

Now for my gripes. Antioch's diction bothers me most. With so few members, you should be able to make out the texts, which, after all, the composers have chosen with great care. Furthermore, the blend is odd. The twelve singers would normally be divided equally: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, three apiece. Three singers in unison usually smooth out the individual vagaries of tone. However, director Joshua Copeland divides SATB into 4-2-2-4 – I can't tell you why. Nevertheless, individual sections do blend, so Copeland's split has done no harm there, although I could use a little more alto. The more significant problem emerges when the sections come together. It sounds as if the choir has been assembled from different choir kits, a photo portrait put together with Elizabeth Taylor's eyes, Scott Glenn's jawline, Barbra Streisand's nose, and Katy Perry's ears. I exaggerate, of course, but the seamlessness and unanimity of tone of British groups roughly the same size is missing. I'm not even looking for a "Devonshire cream" sound, necessarily. The Sixteen, the Hilliard Ensemble, the Purcell Singers all sound different from one another, but share a consistent tonal image within themselves. Antioch needs to work on this.

Nevertheless, this is a kosher disc which gives you a good idea of some of the best of the contemporary choral scene.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz