March 02, 2017
(+++) VOCAL VARIETIES
Patrick Hawes: Revelation; Beatitudes; The Word; Peace Beyond Thought; Let Us Love; The Lord’s Prayer; Be Still; Quanta Qualia. Leslie De’Ath, piano; John Johnson, alto saxophone; The Elora Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $12.99.
Juliana Hall: O Mistress Mine; Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush; Propriety. Darryl Taylor, countertenor; Susan Narucki, soprano; Juliana Hall and Donald Berman, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Edie Hill: From the Wingbone of a Swan; The Fenix; Cancion de el Alma—En una Noche Escura; Clay Jug; We Bloomed in Spring; Alma Beata et Bella. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $14.99.
Jonathan Santore: Choral Music. New Hampshire Master Chorale and Manchester Choral Society and Orchestra conducted by Dan Perkins. Navona. $14.99.
Patrick Hawes (born 1958) is an example of a contemporary composer who continues to draw inspiration from the Bible and to find ways to produce Bible-based choral works that appeal both to performers (amateur and professional) and to religiously inclined audiences. A new Naxos CD featuring the elegant, well-balanced sound of the Elora Singers under Noel Edison includes seven world première recordings of pieces composed as recently as 2016 – plus a non-première recording of a very effective 2014 piece, Quanta Qualia. The words that Hawes chooses for these works are so well-known, at least to those with a conventional religious inclination, that the pieces almost invite a kind of sing-along approach, especially since Hawes is inclined to build substantial works by assembling a collection of very short elements. Revelation, for example, runs 26 minutes but contains nine sections, while Beatitudes (using words from the gospel of Matthew) runs 22 minutes and is made up of eight pieces. Hawes’ mixed-choir writing is skillful, and indeed the a cappella pieces on this disc are more involving than the ones with piano accompaniment, which are Beatitudes, Let Us Love and Be Still. The piano parts seem more tacked-on than integral to the music. On the other hand, Quanta Qualia includes an alto saxophone with the chorus, and that sound mixture proves both unusual and pleasing. Many of the works lie high in the performers’ vocal ranges – the sopranos occasionally seem to strain to reach the top notes – but the basic musical structure here is as straightforward as the texts, and the disc will please listeners who enjoy contemporary choral music as well as ones seeking religious uplift through traditional means.
Juliana Hall was also born in 1958, but her vocal approaches are quite different from those of Hawes, as a new MSR Classics release makes clear. The piano is more integral to the three song cycles here than it is to anything on the Hawes CD, and the texts that Hall sets are more varied. The most interesting songs are in O Mistress Mine, which includes a dozen pieces to words by Shakespeare, whose gorgeous language is woven through a piano line that ranges from the piquant to the smooth. The choice of countertenor to voice these songs is an inspired one, and Darryl Taylor delivers the words with sensitivity and emotional involvement, while the composer herself provides first-rate accompaniment. However, Hall’s forays into dissonance do not always fit the words’ meaning and sometimes seem more mannered than necessary to the material, as if it would be unseemly to treat these Elizabethan-era texts in any old-fashioned way when setting them in 2016. Still, O Mistress Mine is by and large a pleasant, involving and attractively structured cycle. The other two song sets here, for soprano (the very accomplished Susan Narucki) and piano (Donald Berman), are older and somewhat more conventional. Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush (1989) is based on the letters of Emily Dickinson rather than her poetry, while Propriety (1992) uses poems by Marianne Moore. The Dickinson material is as much historical curiosity as worthwhile fodder for songs, although the chance to hear something beyond the many Dickinson poems that have been set by other composers is a welcome one. The Moore poems are well-chosen: they include Mercifully, Carnegie Hall: Rescued, Dream, Propriety and Melchior Vulpius. The settings themselves, however, do not shed any particular light on the words, although they fit the texts well and give Narucki and Berman ample opportunity to emote and express. All these works are world première recordings, and all will be of interest to fans of modern music for vocal recitals – with the Shakespeare settings most likely to intrigue listeners and occasionally amuse them, as with This is a very scurvy tune to sing from The Tempest.
The music of Edie Hill (born 1962) on a new Navona CD includes some of the attention to choral writing found in the Hawes disc and some of the instrumental sensitivity shown in Hall’s works. Hill’s music is eclectic: sometimes straightforward in approach, as in setting a soloist against a larger group, sometimes multi-layered either through divisi voices or by setting the vocal elements against instrumental ones that here include percussion (Ted Babcock), cello (Arlen Hlusko), and flute (Mimi Stillman). Like Hall, Hill chooses texts carefully and from varied sources, in Hill’s case both secular and sacred: The Fenix comes from The Exeter Book, while Cancion de el Alma—En una Noche Escura is from San Juan de la Cruz, Clay Jug is from 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir, We Bloomed in Spring comes from St. Teresa of Avila, Alma Beata et Bella is by Jacopo Sannazaro, and Hill herself – along with Timothy O’Brien – provides the words for From the Wingbone of a Swan. The settings are as disparate as the textual variety would suggest, but they all showcase frequent use of dissonance set against sections of lyrical beauty. The music sounds woven as much as composed, the words often unintelligible but functioning as threads within an overall sound picture that uses the voices of The Crossing in a wide variety of ways (only From the Wingbone of a Swan adds instruments to the vocal elements). We Bloomed in Spring, the shortest work here (under three minutes), is the most immediately affecting and reaches out most attractively; Alma Beata et Bella also has much to recommend it, despite some over-reaching in the higher registers (although Donald Nally always keeps the voices well under control). The remaining pieces are all at least intermittently effective, although they tend to expand rather too far to remain convincing and involving. Hill, like Hall and Hawes, certainly shows skill in handling a vocal ensemble, and these works are pleasant if not especially engaging: Hill’s music will likely reach out with more impact to singers looking for something new to perform than to an audience hoping for a fully engaging listening experience.
Unlike many other contemporary composers of vocal music, Jonathan Santore (born 1963) roots his works firmly in the past, as is abundantly clear on a new Navona CD featuring eight pieces. The largest-scale of these by far is Requiem: Learning to Fall, for chorus, orchestra and solo mezzo-soprano (Emily Jaworski). In two parts and 12 short movements, this piece is essentially a meditation on the word alleluia and the well-known Dies irae, both of which elements pervade the music and recur again and again. They essentially represent a simplistic juxtaposition of light against dark, but the words of this Requiem, which are not at all the traditional ones of the Requiem Mass, are used to provide a variety of paeans to life despite the work’s overall title. The effect is an intriguing one, and Santore’s striving for clarity of the vocal line makes the intent of this piece and its individual sections clear. The use of an orchestra broadens the texts, and the instrumentation is well handled. The same is true in a short piece called Forgetting that also uses chorus with orchestra: Santore’s writing for voices, like that of Hawes, emphasizes ease of communication with the audience and is largely tonal. Four of the remaining six pieces here are for chorus plus one or a few instruments: Walden Recessional includes a cello (Linda Galvan), The Return (Armistice Poems) uses a piano (Dan Perkins), and there is a soprano saxophone (Rik Pfenninger) in Love Always! In addition, O Sweet Spontaneous Earth includes a string trio: Eva Gruesser on violin, Daniel Doña on viola, and Leo Eguchi on cello. The remaining two works are for chorus alone: Kalevala Fragments, its title inviting thoughts of Sibelius, and Eight Gypsy Songs after Brahms, whose reference to earlier compositions is obvious. Because Santore goes out of his way to make the clarity of the words central to his vocal writing, listeners’ reaction to these pieces will depend in large part on how they feel about the topics, whether the sylvan setting of Walden Recessional or the bittersweet World War I environment of the three poems in The Return. Santore has a clear style of his own despite his indebtedness to earlier composers: Kalevala Fragments actually sounds much like layered Gregorian chant, and despite its title, Eight Gypsy Songs after Brahms has very little that is Brahmsian about it either thematically or musically. Much of the music here is intriguing and surprising, taking an audience’s ears in some unexpected directions and even, as in The bronzed boy (the second in the not-quite-Brahms cycle), in some genuinely unexpected ones. Listeners, even ones not especially enamored of modern vocal writing, will find a great deal of interest in these Santore works.