* Choral Music
* Mid-Winter Songs
* Les chansons des roses
* I will lift up mine eyes
* O come, let us sing unto the Lord
* Ave, dulcissima Maria
Andrew Lumsden, organ
Morten Lauridsen, piano
Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA67580 Total time: 65:17
Summary for the Busy Executive: A narrow, but often productive road.
I've written about Morten Lauridsen before (see my review), 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
Clearly, however, Lauridsen has worked for his style. He has had
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 Bartok'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
Pasiphae" 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 some of 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 complete" - 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
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.
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