September 17, 2015


Divine Redeemer: Music of Bach, Gounod, Franck, Nadia Boulanger, Lili Boulanger, Puccini, Wolf, Reger and Handel. Christine Brewer, soprano; Paul Jacobs, organ. Naxos. $12.99.

Stephen Paulus: Choral Music. True Concord Voices & Orchestra conducted by Eric Holtan. Reference Recordings. $16.99.

Craig Madden Morris: Circle of Love and Other Choral Offerings. Ravello. $16.99.

Thomas Juneau: Te Deum; Five Latin Motets; Magnum Mysterium; Gaudete. Summit Chorale and Juneau Vocal Alliance conducted by Thomas Juneau. Ravello. $16.99.

     Although the traditional method of musical prayer and devotional expression is a vocal one, instrumental music can also be an effective way for a composer to express thoughts about what is sacred and encourage listeners to contemplate the divine. That is the realization to which a Naxos CD called Divine Redeemer will bring those who hear it. The CD is actually a rather curious mixture, being as much a showcase for Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs as it is for the works they perform: Brewer has a wonderful voice for this varied repertoire, and Jacobs’ playing is enticing and highly involving throughout. It is the mix of music that is a bit hard to pin down beyond the obvious connection of all works with the disc’s title. Bach’s Bist du bei mir, very sensitively sung, is followed by his Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547, resulting in an instrumental counterbalance to the vocal work. So far, so good. But much that comes afterwards is arranged rather arbitrarily. There is Gounod’s O Divine Redeemer! There is Franck’s beautiful Panis angelicus from Messe à 3 voix. Then there are the Trois Pièces pour Orgue by Nadia Boulanger, followed by the vocal Pie Jesu in a lovely setting by her sister, Lili. And next are other short vocal appeals to and interpretations of the divine: Puccini’s Salve Regina and three Wolf songs in voice-and-organ arrangements by Reger – Nun wandre, Maria and Führ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem! from Spanisches Liederbuch and Gebet from Mörike-Lieder. Then comes another organ interlude, in the form of Reger’s upbeat Toccata and Fugue, Op. 59, which Jacobs handles particularly well. And then the CD closes with But oh! What art can teach from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day – a fitting conclusion for a recording that does indeed show what art can teach about the relationship between music and the divine.

     Still, listeners interested in affirmation of or appeal to divine forces are more accustomed to gravitating to sung works rather than a mixture of the vocal and non-vocal; and for those who find contemporary appeals to powers beyond the everyday especially appealing, a new Reference Recordings release of choral works by the late Stephen Paulus will be of considerable interest. Paulus (1949-2014) was a fine composer and a prolific one, with more than 500 works to his credit. He specialized in opera and vocal music, and frequently wrote for ensembles such as True Concord Voices & Orchestra: The Incomprehensible and Prayers and Remembrances, the first written for the group’s fifth anniversary in 2009 and the second in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist murders, were both commissioned and given their premières by this ensemble and are here recorded for the first time. What stands out in these pieces and the five others on this disc are two things: Paulus’ fine feeling for lyrical expression, which is apparent throughout this music, and his skill in orchestration, which results in instruments commenting on and adding to the words rather than merely supplementing or simply backing them up. There is a freshness to Paulus’ melodic invention even when  he is dealing with sentiments and emotions that are largely familiar, as in Grant That We May Love, Nunc dimittis, I Have Called You By Name, Little Elegy and When Music Sounds – the last of these being the final work on the CD and as fitting an affirmation of the connection between music and the spiritual as is Handel’s aria on the Naxos CD. Whether writing works focusing on solo voices (Grant That We May Love features two sopranos, tenor and baritone), ones where the light shines on instruments (The Incomprehensible has sensitive parts for oboe and harp), or ones where the focus is purely choral, Paulus brings textual and textural understanding to the music and helps connect it clearly to listeners’ feelings and experiences.

     The choral works of Chris Madden Morris, as heard on a new Ravello CD, seek a similar connection, in this case through use of some biblical texts and some that are secular – although with mystical overtones. The Bible’s Song of Songs seems particularly attractive to Morris, providing the basis for three of the nine pieces here: Arise My Love, How Sweet Your Love and Oh, For a Kiss. Other Bible-sourced works are Wherever You Go from the Book of Ruth, Two Are Better Than One from Ecclesiastes, And Abraham Remained Standing Before the Lord from Genesis, and The Touch of Memory, whose text is partly from Malachi and partly by Morris himself. The primary focus of the disc is love and human relationships, as is clear from the chosen biblical passages and also from the non-biblical sources: The Rubaiyat is taken from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Tiger from William Blake’s poem, although Blake’s work is both mystical and ambiguous in its title and its references, which merge the secular and the sacred. Like Paulus, Morris is a contemporary composer who is unafraid of lyricism and emotionalism; he is also a child psychiatrist, and as such has a keen sense of the ways in which words and music can touch us at many levels. Circle of Love is an apt title for this recording, since its elements deal with love in many guises and at many times of life, from falling in love while young, to forging an ongoing intimate and caring relationship, to (in Two Are Better Than One) seeing love as a late-in-life experience that helps smooth the inevitable difficulties of aging and the passage of time. The Blake poem (whose title the poet spelled “tyger”) and the Genesis excerpt do not quite fit with the other works here, being placed next-to-last and last on the CD and moving the material beyond that of human love to that of the puzzles of presumed divine love and the difficulties inherent in understanding it. As a result, the CD ends with less affirmation and rather less sense of human devotion than it would if it concluded with Two Are Better Than One. But Morris does make the salient point that love in all its human guises and puzzles is only one form of the feeling and experience, one whose connection to a greater and more all-encompassing love is not always clear.

     The focus of Thomas Juneau on another new Ravello release is distinctly on matters of the divine; and Juneau communicates here in the language most closely identified with Christian-era  celebrations of divine love and grace, Latin. Yet even when using old texts and old forms, Juneau seems to seek some new types of expression. Te Deum, for example, is a forthright, affirmative, outgoing and bright work, some of its instrumental fanfares recalling those brought to the forefront in the sacred music of Berlioz and Verdi. This is celebratory music throughout, its interplay of solo and choral sections designed to heighten the upbeat message of the well-worn text. The Five Latin Motets, in contrast, include both exuberant material and thoughtful, even tender passages, and their harmonic language is somewhat more acerbic than is that of the Te Deum. Their requirement of choral virtuosity, however, is at the same level. The three-movement Magnum Mysterium, a Christmas-focused work, is interestingly scored for treble chorus and harp, and moves from first-movement mysticism to a lovely central Ave Maria and celebratory final Resonet in Laudibus. The CD concludes with even greater exultation and exaltation in Gaudete, in which Juneau takes a 16th-century text and builds it from one height to the next, increasing its exclamatory power through to its conclusion. Like the works of Morris and Paulus, those by Juneau heard here will be primarily attractive to listeners who are interested in modern choral writing and in music that focuses on and celebrates love secular and sacred, old-fashioned and eternal.

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