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CD Review

Morten Lauridsen

Choral Works

  • Lux aeterna (1997)
  • Les Chansons des Roses (1993) *
  • Ave Maria (1997)
  • Mid-Winter Songs (1980; orchestral version, 1990)
  • O magnum mysterium (1994)
* Morten Lauridsen, piano,
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Los Angeles Sinfonia Orchestra/Paul Salamunovich
RCM 19705 76:23
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Summary for the Busy Executive: I have doubts about the music. No doubts at all about the choir - world-class.

Thanks to conductors like Roger Wagner and Howard Swan, Los Angeles has one of the country's strongest choral traditions. The movies, of course, didn't hurt, which you might think about the next time you hear celestial voices in the newest John Williams score.

Paul Salamunovich came up with Roger Wagner, founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Technically, the group falls under the category of "community chorus," but, then again, Los Angeles is no ordinary community. Like New York, it attracts performers from all over the country like honey draws ants, and one legacy of its strong show-biz presence is that a career in the arts appears almost middle-class. The quantity and quality of potential choristers seems much higher than in, say, Sandusky. The Chorale has also been superbly trained - great raw material fashioned into a remarkable instrument.

First in the list of the Chorale's characteristics stands a fabulous, rich sound - a tribute both to the quality of its voices and the blend Salamunovich achieves. The intonation - keeping chords in tune - is gorgeous in itself. My only gripe concerns the group's diction. You can't really follow the text most of the time without the words printed in front of you. Normally, this sort of textual mush also brings with it or leads to slack rhythm, but the Chorale more often than not comes across as rhythmically incisive. You just have trouble making out the words.

Lauridsen has earned a name for himself as a choral composer. The works not only sound well, but they're very well written. Lauridsen studied on the West Coast with such greats as Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens. His idiom stems from American neo-classicism - the composers just mentioned, as well as, here and there, some Copland. Unlike them, however, he manages to produce a lush sound, and this might lead him into trouble as his career progresses.

The program here has been chosen a bit unfortunately. Each work in itself is sensuously beautiful, but the more recent works - the Lux aeterna, Les Chansons, Ave Maria, and O magnum mysterium - sound pretty much alike, down to the use of the same basic ideas from work to work. One also misses rhythmic and textural variety. A streamlined update of Elgar's "Nimrod" variation figures prominently in several pieces. It leads to the impression that Lauridsen knows some beautiful moves, but that he's got a very small bag of moves. However, this impression of sameness might have been mitigated with a different program. I prefer the three large works - Lux, Chansons, and Mid-Winter Songs - to the shorter pieces. Lux aeterna sets well-known sacred texts that mention light. For example, the first movement, "Introitus," uses the opening movement to the requiem mass with its reference to "lux perpetua luceat eis." Lauridsen uses the Elgar "Nimrod" idiom here, but God, as Mies van der Rohe said, lies in the details. The craft of the thing is stupendous, reminding me (and others) of the counterpoint of the Brahms Deutsches Requiem. You might also hear similarities to Duruflé's requiem, since the lines, mainly modal, share a family look with Gregorian chant. Les Chansons des Roses collect French poems by the German poet Rilke which mention roses. There must be at least a hundred, since the rose is one of Rilke's most heavily-used symbols - that and angels. Again, when Lauridsen needs a climax, he seems to want to dip into "Nimrod" yet once more. Nevertheless, the work does show a greater variety of idiom than Lux, even though Chansons is based on a rather small set of motives. The Mid-Winter Songs set lyrics by Robert Graves which mention winter. The earliest work on the program, it also ranges the most widely. As an interesting side observation, the Copland of Appalachian Spring makes a couple of appearances.

The overall impression the program gives is that as Lauridsen grows older, the music becomes more restrictive, narrower. He seems dangerously close to having become a one-trick pony, although I emphasize that I don't know a lot of his work.

In any case, these performances by the Los Angeles Master Chorale must give him much joy. Rarely will you hear a choral sound so sumptuous. My one minor complaint concerns the recorded sound itself - so echo-y that it sounds like the product of the engineer's mixing board. It comes across as hokey or at least as quite unnecessary. It sounds as if they recorded in the Temple of Doom.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz