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Hyperion Records

CDA67449 - Lauridsen: Lux aeterna & other choral works
Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead? (1905) by Howard Pyle (1853-1911)
American Illustrators Gallery, NYC / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67449

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: March 2005
Total duration: 66 minutes 7 seconds

GRAMMY AWARD NOMINATION

'Exquisitely sung by Polyphony with strong support from the Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton' (The Observer)

'The music has freshness and an affecting emotional pull to it that explains its popularity with singers and audiences across the pond. Stephen Layton's Polyphony, whose recent recordings of Pärt, Tavener and others have been revelations of choral singing, brings a comparable firmness, tonal opulence and refinement to this new repertoire, which will undoubtedly gain new admirers as a result' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Conventional choral wisdom suggests that the American Morten Lauridsen is a one-work wonder and certainly O magnum mysterium is wonderful, with vocal lines that arch out like fan vaulting. With this new recording Stephen Layton and Hyperion are clearly out to prove that Lauridsen's gifts are not just for Christmas but for all seasons too … now the jury is back: the choir and Layton have acquitted Morten Lauridsen. Here's a three-, perhaps four-work wonder!' (International Record Review)

'Layton and company have here produced the finest I've heard among several excellent collections of Lauridsen's work. None are quite as exquisitely nuanced or sung with such glowing vocal sheen as this. Clear and shimmering sound, plus Hyperion's usual complete and user-friendly booklet, make it all the more attractive. No committed choral fan or singer will ever regret letting Lauridsen into his life' (American Record Guide)

'Stephen Layton's feel for the inner line and structure melts the heart, as does the impeccable, unforced singing of Polyphony. Their music-making remains in heavenly realms throughout the virtuoso Madrigali: pure choral gold' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Every one of the works on this mesmerising Hyperion release is deliciously lyrical and harmonically sumptuous, but spiced with delicate dissonances that are Lauridsen's signature … every performance here is delivered with liquid perfection' (The Scotsman)

'It's not often I have to brush away the tears when I'm reviewing a recording, but I will happily confess that on this occasion Lauridsen got me again and again. I can't give this disc a higher recommendation than that. Run out and buy it as soon as you can' (Fanfare, USA)

'Above all, these performances by Stephen Layton's Polyphony are breathtakingly beautiful, powerfully expressive without trace of forced sentimentality. Hyperion's Disc of the Month for March should become one of the year's classical hits' (Music Week)

'A flawless, perfectly balanced performance from the British choral group Polyphony, directed by the gifted Stephen Layton, and ably assisted by the Britten Sinfonia. If you love choral music, if you appreciate compositions that lift you from the mundane, you should not miss Lux aeterna' (St Louis-Post Dispatch)

'This Hyperion release is superb and the disc is a must. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have' (Classical Music Web)

'This is compelling and challenging music that deserves wider performance. The world-class ensemble Polyphony has made many first-rate recordings, and this is another—and it will be an immediate acquisition for this composer's growing legions of fans … if you love choral music, Lauridsen's work is required listening' (ClassicsToday.com)

'The sound is very clean, very focused and detailed, and has remarkable sound-stage depth … the bottom line is, if you aren't familiar with Lux aeterna, your life is the poorer for it. You do need a recording of it' (Stereophile)

Lux aeterna & other choral works

This new disc from the multi-award-winning choir Polyphony is something rather special. At once genuinely original and yet reassuringly accessible, the music of Morten Lauridsen has achieved something of a cult status in his native America (O magnum mysterium currently being the top-selling choral octavo in the country – the number 2 spot is also a Lauridsen work), and Stephen Layton draws from his musicians some of the most ardently lyrical performances of recent years.

Lux aeterna was greeted by The Times after its London premiere thus: ‘a classic of new American choral writing … in this light-filled continuum of sacred texts, old world structures and new world spirit intertwine in a cunningly written score, at once sensuous and spare’. Were a comparison to be sought, it would perhaps with with Fauré’s Requiem, but this new work surely stands as unique.

The Madrigali, subtitled ‘Six Fire Songs on Italian Renaissance Poems’, are phenomenally challenging unaccompanied choral works, very much in the tradition of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Yet the technical difficulties they present to the performer are disguised from the listener by a seamless sense of purpose which unites the cycle into a whole of stunning effect.

Occupying a similarly opulent sound-world to Lux aeterna, the three Latin motets which conclude this disc are truly modern masterpieces in the traditional motet genre.


Other recommended albums
'Beyond all mortal dreams' (CDA67832)
Beyond all mortal dreams
'Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom & other choral works' (CDA67679)
Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom & other choral works

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Vaughan Williams once asserted that the ‘object of art is to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty’. No composer working today exemplifies Vaughan Williams’s dictum more than Morten Lauridsen, whose music – sonorously beautiful and immaculately crafted – reaches out toward hitherto unknown regions of emotion and contemplation. Working deliberately and carefully, Lauridsen has created a body of vocal and choral music that enriches the experience of performers and listeners alike through its remarkable ability to communicate clearly what Wordsworth once identified as ‘thoughts too deep for tears’. Lauridsen does so through an approach to the creation of music that is refreshingly devoid of either jargon or obfuscation, but rather is imbued with a pervasive sincerity. In other words, Lauridsen’s music transcends labels, fashionable or otherwise; he is neither a ‘modernist’ nor a ‘postmodernist’, but rather remains true to an inimitable inner singing.

Lauridsen is first and foremost a composer for the voice, and the creation of beautiful melodic lines is one of his highest priorities; as he once stated, ‘I constantly sing each line as I am composing to make sure that each part is lyrical and gracious for the singer’. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the American composer has immersed himself in plainchant and the music of the Renaissance, and that this ongoing study has had a deep impression upon his style. This engagement with the past never approaches pastiche, however, for Lauridsen assimilates both chant and sixteenth-century music into a personal idiom that has been formed through an abiding love of lyricism as found especially in classical art song and that of the American musical theatre. Among the several techniques that Lauridsen has assimilated from the music of the Renaissance is the ability to create flexible counterpoint based on intricate canonic procedures, formal concision, and an almost preternatural sensitivity to textual nuance, whether sacred or secular. The composer himself has noted that his ‘passion, second to music, is poetry’.

Lauridsen had pondered the creation of his Lux aeterna for chorus and orchestra for an extended period before the work began to crystallize in 1995. In an uncanny parallel with both Brahms and Fauré, the composition of Lux aeterna was given an added impetus and poignancy when Lauridsen’s mother died as he began to notate his initial ideas for the score. Written especially for the distinguished conductor Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lux aeterna enjoyed a highly successful premiere on 13 April 1997, and has subsequently been performed by countless choral ensembles.

Like Fauré’s Requiem, Lux aeterna is suffused by warmth and consolation; the composer has written that this is an ‘intimate work of quiet serenity’ that expresses ‘hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations’. Unlike Fauré, however, Lauridsen did not set out to compose a liturgical work, but rather collated texts from a variety of sacred Latin sources. Unified by an emphasis upon heavenly light, Lux aeterna opens and concludes with lines from the Requiem Mass, while the three central movements are drawn from the Te Deum (with a single line interpolated from the Beatus vir, Psalm 111: 4), O nata lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus. As London Times critic Hilary Finch has noted, Lux aeterna is a ‘classic of new American choral writing. In this light-filled continuum of sacred texts, old world structures and new world spirit intertwine in a cunningly written score, at once sensuous and spare.’

Cast as five movements performed without pause, Lux aeterna is organized as an extended motet, for each new portion of the text calls forth a different musical response. Strands of complex counterpoint, including a multiplicity of canons and double canons, are interlaced to create the sonorous equivalent of supernal light. In a manner that hearkens back to Dunstable and Taverner, these polyphonic passages are contrasted with sections reminiscent of the homophonic fauxbourdon beloved by Renaissance composers. Lauridsen unifies Lux aeterna in part through a single recurring chord – comprising a D major triad with an added note, E – that becomes a harmonic symbol of the luminous. Just as Palestrina and Victoria vary the disposition of triads in their motets to ensure variety of colour and texture, so Lauridsen constantly reconstitutes this basic luminous sonority, producing an effect at once unified and kaleidoscopic.

Throughout the opening movement of Lux aeterna, the composer creates the effect of musical chiaroscuro by deepening the predominant mood of inner poise and grace with touches of solemnity and inwardness. In the second section of the score, In te, Domine, speravi, the solemn chorale Herzliebster Jesu (from the Nuremberg Songbook of 1677) is introduced as a cantus firmus that underpins the musical discourse as it flows above. This severe chorale casts a shadow over the music that is dispelled by succeeding movement, the radiant O nata lux for a cappella chorus, the text of which is a hymn originally sung during Lauds on the Feast of the Transfiguration. The incandescence of the succeeding section, the hymn Veni, Sancte Spiritus, traditionally chanted at Pentecost Matins, dims gradually into a gentle Agnus Dei that is an introspective prayer for peace. The ecstatic ‘alleluias’ that follow express a joyous sense of acceptance reminiscent of the final words of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: ‘All those impulses of love return to the love that made them … there is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’

In his choral cycle Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems for a cappella chorus (1987), Lauridsen expropriates techniques favoured by sixteenth-century Italian madrigalists to paint a very different emotional landscape from that of Lux aeterna. Instead of light, hope and serenity, the Madrigali are haunted by darkness, yearning and, at times, profound despair. As in Lux aeterna, Lauridsen employs the technique of using a single chord – a sonority that he has dubbed the ‘fire-chord’ (a B flat minor triad with a scorching added C) – to unify the entire score and symbolize its fevered mood. As the composer has testified: ‘The choral masterpieces of the High Renaissance, especially the madrigals of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, provided the inspiration for my own Madrigali. Italian love poems of that era have constituted a rich lyric source for many composers, and while reading them I became increasingly intrigued by the symbolic image of flames, burning and fire that recurred within this context.’

Derived from what the composer has identified as the ‘single, primal sonority’ of the ‘fire-chord’, the Madrigali relate an inner narrative of evanescent hope and erotic obsession. Some of the techniques that the composer has assimilated from Monteverdi and his contemporaries include a pervasive modality, bold harmonic juxtapositions, word-painting through melodic and harmonic means; intricate counterpoint, and Augenmusik – literally ‘eye-music’. (Used extensively by Marenzio and other sixteenth-century madrigal composers, the practice of Augenmusik exploits the purely graphic appearance of the score to convey a musical meaning to the performer’s gaze.) Cast as an extended Bogenform (‘arch form’), the Madrigali are unified through the use of recurring thematic and harmonic material, especially between movements one and six, and two and five. The capstone and climax of the cycle is reached in the fourth madrigal, Io piango (‘I weep’), a lament that reaches a shattering climax on a complex chord of harrowing dissonance. The final movement, Se per havervi, oime (‘If, alas, when I gave you my heart’), provides the Madrigali with an ambivalent conclusion; after the emotional immolation so movingly portrayed in the preceding madrigals, Lauridsen sagely eschews a facile resolution by ending the cycle on a subdued but insistently unresolved dissonance. As the composer once remarked, ‘these settings are passionate, earthy, dramatic – red wine music’.

The three Latin motets recorded here inhabit a chaste realm far removed from the searing passions of the Madrigali, and, indeed, these scores can be considered as satellites revolving around the larger heavenly body of Lux aeterna. Lauridsen’s Ave Maria, composed in 1997, is a texturally rich, eight-part setting of the most beloved of Marian antiphons. This lovely Ave Maria recalls the sumptuous polychoral music of Gabrieli as well as the rich textures of Brahms’s music for unaccompanied chorus. A setting of an antiphon for Maundy Thursday, Ubi caritas et amor was written in 1999 in memory of the choral conductor and scholar, Richard H Trame, SJ. In this motet, Lauridsen subtly adapts the plainchant melody, adorning it with contrapuntal elaborations that create a glowing nimbus of sound.

O magnum mysterium is pervaded by the same tenderness and refinement found in Lux aeterna; indeed, this refulgent work was written in 1994, just before Lauridsen began to contemplate the composition of the larger score. The composer has disclosed that this motet is an ‘affirmation of God’s grace to the meek … a quiet song of profound inner joy’. With a text from Christmas Matins that has been set by such disparate composers as Victoria and Poulenc, Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium expresses mystical awe at the mystery of the Incarnation as well as the very human tenderness of the Virgin Mary for her newborn child.

Byron Adams © 2005

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