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Beyond All Mortal Dreams

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All but two of the composers represented here are still alive, so the word “contemporary” might easily have been added to its title. But then, that might have put people off; best avoid it, perhaps. Choral conductors will be familiar with most of these names, the general music lover probably less so. In recent years a powerful movement of approachable yet recognisably modern choral music has arisen, of which John Rutter was one of the earliest and most influential protagonists, and which is particularly active in the United States. This disc is a celebration of that movement.
René Clausen is a respected American academic, composer and choral conductor. This collection opens magically with hisTonight eternity alone, a setting of four lines of text expressing a profound calm and contentment. The choral writing is expert, and typical of the composer: rich, multi-voiced diatonic harmonies, widely-spread chords with, at crucial moments, good solid bass anchors. There is also a short passage featuring two solo sopranos, executed here with the kind of stunning accuracy and beauty by Ruby Dayan and Hannah Partridge that makes amateur choral conductors – such as the present writer – deeply, vividly green with envy. Indeed, envy was an emotion I experienced in spades listening to this disc. How many choirs, for instance, would achieve the same richness of tone and impeccable tuning as this one does in the closing bars of Stephen Stucky’sO vos omnes? This is the third of his motets in memory of Tallis, and though the mix is a little more piquant, one can assert that the sound world of the two composers, and maybe even their musical sensibility, is not so distant, one from the other.
Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo’sSanctusbegins in radiant beauty, but for this listener at least, the promise is not fulfilled. Too much of the writing is based on scales, and the device of changing key by stepping up a semitone, Sinatra-style, for the Hosannas, doesn’t work for me. The pieces by Frank Ferko, on the other hand, are very fine. These settings of words by Hildegard of Bingen use the most advanced musical language on the disc to strikingly beautiful effect. Opening in bare fifths, one expects the music to pay more direct homage to Hildegard than is actually the case. Indeed, with the highly complex harmonies that open the second song – dispatched with ease by this remarkable choir – it is Messiaen who comes to mind, and indeed it turns out that the composer is an authority on the French composer. At the opening of the third song there is a brief excursion into polyphony, unusual in this largely homophonic collection, and the piece ends with a spine-tingling top A, held for what seems like an eternity by what seems like a single singer. Stunning!
By the time we get to Edwin Fissinger’sLux aeternathe impression is setting in that this collection amounts to a series of superbly imagined gorgeous chords one after the other. Listening to the whole disc in one sitting therefore becomes a bit of a wallow, and it is for this reason that the best way to appreciate it is by choosing just a couple of pieces and giving them your full attention. Fissinger’s piece certainly rewards such care, especially the final section where a solo line meanders over a repeated accompaniment figure in the lower voices. A word of praise for the two soloists, for the excellent bass, Laurence Williams, and especially – he will forgive me – the ravishing, sensual, open-throated singing of the solo soprano, Margaret Walker.
Healey Willan was born in London, but left for Toronto in 1913, where he remained for the rest of his life. His music, at least to judge from this selection of four short pieces, didn’t stray far from these shores. Less chromatic than Finzi or even Stanford, this music breathes the air of the English cathedral. All four pieces have some beautiful moments, the closing bars ofRise up, my love, my fair oneparticularly so. Three works by Stephen Paulus follow. These are essentially strophic, homophonic settings, but their most striking characteristic is a commitment to diatonic language striking even in this company. They are lovely pieces, but there is scarcely a nod towards more than a century of music history, and this does make me a little uncomfortable.
The Latin texts of William Hawley’sTwo Motetsare, unusually, secular in nature, the one describing the beauties along the banks of the Moselle, the other the torment of the poet as he lies awake, alone, dreaming of his lover. The musical language of each piece is more or less identical, a string of suspensions, unresolved at the end, and here I part company with the excellent Gabriel Crouch, who writes in the booklet that “The contrasts in thematic material…are magnified by their very similarity”. In fact, after several hearings, I am persuaded that if the text of the first motet were sung to the music of the second, few listeners would be perturbed. Both are very beautiful, nonetheless.
The disc closes with a second work from Ola Gjeilo, entitledPhoenixin homage to the choir for which it was written, but in fact a powerful and melodious setting of the Agnus Dei.
I wouldn’t like to predict how much of this music will stand the test of time. For now, though, it is wonderfully satisfying to sing, to conduct and to listen to. These performances, beautifully recorded in Trinity Chapel by David Hinitt and Adrian Peacock, are beyond praise. What more can you ask for?

William Hedley

Beyond All Mortal Dreams
Hyperion Records CDA67832