July 29, 2021


Music for A Cappella Choir by Herbert Howells, Enrico Miaroma, Alexander L’Estrange, Zdenek Lukáš, Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfram Buchenberg, Jake Runestad, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Susan Labarr. Baylor A Cappella Choir conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Eloise Hynes Stowe: Psalms; Hymns; Odes. Stella Roden, soprano; Jon Hynes, piano; Lorraine Miller, flute; David Hays, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Kareem Roustom: Embroidered Verses; Kinan Abou-afach: Of Nights and Solace; Muhammad ’Abd Al-Rahim Al-Maslub: When He Appeared. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally; Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble conducted by Hanna Khoury. Navona. $14.99.

     Listeners fascinated by expressive modern sacred and secular vocal music can find some fine performances of largely unfamiliar works on a variety of recently released CDs. An MSR Classics disc featuring the Baylor A Cappella Choir conducted by Brian Schmidt offers nine brief pieces, most of them recently composed, and one extended work: Herbert Howells’ Requiem. This is the centerpiece of the recording in every way, appearing midway through the disc and exceeding in length the five pieces that precede it and the four that follow it. Howells sets his texts – Psalms 23 and 121, a passage from Revelation, and material from the traditional Requiem Mass – with warmth and sensitivity, and the work as a whole seems designed to comfort those who mourn, as is the traditional purpose of the Requiem Mass. The Baylor University singers are expressive and engaged in the music, especially effective as a group but also presenting thoughtful solos when they are called for, as in Psalm 121 and the Revelation material. This Howells score has been recorded fairly frequently, and the Baylor performance stands up well among the available versions. The CD starts and concludes with world première recordings. It opens with Light by Enrico Miaroma (born 1962) and ends with I Hear Thy Voice by Susan Labarr (born 1981) – and those two works serve well as aural bookends, complementing each other effectively in their use of the choir’s range and the mingling of the singers’ voices. In fact, all the music on the disc sounds fine – and, for better or worse, remarkably similar – as performed here. The Miaroma work is followed by Oculi Omnium by Alexander L’Estrange (born 1974); then by a Dies irae setting by Zdenek Lukáš (1928-2007) that is on the dissonant side but scarcely terrifying or wrathful; then by Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, which provides aural balm for the soul; and then by Erbarme Dich Unser from Four Sacred Songs by Wolfram Buchenberg (born 1962), a rhythmically attractive setting with some resemblance to parts of Orff’s Carmina Burana. The Howells work follows this. Later on the CD is an elegant setting of I Will Lift Mine Eyes from Psalm 121 by Jake Runestad (born 1986); then O Vos Omnes, from Lamentations, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), with a suitably lugubrious sound; and then the traditional song The Dying Soldier, which is well-sung but does not quite fit with any of the surrounding material. It is the penultimate work on the disc, followed by Labarr’s. The pleasures of the choir’s sound are a major attraction of this disc, although the somewhat monochromatic nature of the music produces a degree of monotony – a surprise in light of the very different eras of the various composers.

     A single contemporary composer, Eloise Hynes Stowe, undertakes to communicate sacred moods of many sorts through a solo voice on a new Navona CD. Stowe herself is a soprano – she sang opera in that vocal range early in her career – and writes quite well for the high female voice. In the eight Psalms, three Hymns and five Odes heard here, she sets the music sensitively for soprano and piano – and the occasional touches of flute and violin are artfully handled, extending the expressiveness of the keyboard instrument without ever supplanting it. Unsurprisingly in this material, Stowe, like the contemporary composers whose music the Baylor choir performs, sticks fairly strictly to a tonal medium and to traditional word emphasis, pacing and rhythms. This makes her work sound comfortable and familiar, if not particularly innovative, although innovation, it can be argued, is scarcely the point of music intended to calm and uplift an audience. The texts that Stowe sets are varied, from the inevitable Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”) to the less-often-heard Psalms 8, 9, 32, 137 and 139. There is also a setting combining a portion of the book of Habakkuk with the start of Psalm 42; and there is a very short (minute-and-a-half) piece mixing lines from various psalms. Of the authors of the three hymns, the best-known is Isaac Watts, whose When I survey the wondrous cross gets a sensitive and emotive setting. The other hymns use the form of identical words at the start of each line, repeated multiple times throughout. These pieces are by Frances Havergal (“Take my” – life, hands, feet, voice, etc.) and August Storm (“Thanks” – to God and, among other things, for tears, prayers, storms, grace, love, roses, thorns, and hope). The unvarying verbiage in these hymns has, to an extent, a lulling effect, which Stowe’s music accepts and even accentuates. As for the five Odes, they bear the numbers 3, 8, 14, 15, and 26, and are drawn in part from the Psalms and in part from the Odes of Solomon that were discovered in the early 20th century. Stowe’s music is characterized throughout by sensitivity to the material and a strongly worshipful expressiveness. Stella Roden communicates these elements well, with Jon Hynes’ always-respectful pianistic support and the occasional contributions of Lorraine Miller on flute and David Hays on violin underlining the meaning of the words and emphasizing their emotional underpinnings. Listeners already attuned to the Bible as a source of strength and hope will find much uplift here.

     The vocal material is far less familiar and considerably more exploratory on another Navona release, this one featuring the chamber choir called The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally. Most of this disc consists of two commissioned works based on Andalusian poetry; it is only the final, brief piece, When He Appeared, that is traditional – written, specifically, in an Arab poetic and musical form called muwashshah. Yet to most listeners, accustomed to Western or even Eastern (as in Oriental) music, Embroidered Verses by Kareem Roustom (born 1971) and Of Nights and Solace by Kinan Abou-afach (born 1977) will likely sound as if they were created as long ago as the muwashshah. The reason lies not only in the language but also in the instrumentation of the group that accompanies the singers. The Crossing is here joined by the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, which includes violin, cello, percussion, and – very prominently – oud (a pear-shaped, lutelike instrument) and qanun (a string instrument that resembles a large zither and has a unique, rather dramatic sound). This release showcases much of what is both good and not so good in presentations that are determinedly multicultural and as avant-garde as possible. On the one hand, there is real beauty as well as exotic-sounding material here: the rhythms of Embroidered Verses are hypnotically attractive in a way that is very different from that of typical Western settings of scripture or, for that matter, of secular verbiage. On the other hand, there is less musical interest, except for those determinedly devoted to the exotic, in the sounds of the solo singing by Dalal Abu Amneh in Of Nights and Solace, and here the instrumental accompaniment is not really varied or engaging enough to justify the 26-minute length of the six-part piece. The same soloist’s singing is more involving in When He Appeared, but here too the basic style of declamation, obviously inherent in the musical form, is not especially appealing even when well-delivered. It is scarcely surprising that The Crossing, committed as the group is to contemporary music and cross-cultural endeavors, would be drawn to (and into) this material. And certainly listeners in search of unexpected sound blends and unusual mergers of instruments and voices will find this music – at least some of it – appealing. But this is scarcely a disc that is likely to reach a wide audience or convince any significant group of listeners of the appeal of sound mergers of this sort. The esoteric nature of the CD may in fact be part of its charm for a small group of people. Reaching out to a larger audience seems not to be a matter of great concern, or much interest, to those involved in the project.

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