Contre qui, rose [3'18]
De ton rêve trop plein [2'14]
I will lift up mine eyes [3'14]
While their recording of Eric Whitacre (CDA67543) continues its chart-topping run on both sides of the Atlantic, Stephen Layton and Polyphony have returned to the studio and put down a second disc devoted to the choral music of Whitacre’s compatriot Morten Lauridsen.
The popular cycles Mid-Winter Songs and Les chansons des roses (the final number of which, Dirait-on, caused something of a publishing sensation on its first appearance) are joined by four premiere recordings: two early Psalm settings, and two new works written during the preparations for this recording.
Performances from Layton and his portfolio of musicians are every bit as polished as we have come to expect. Polyphony is joined by the Britten Sinfonia for the Mid-Winter Songs, Andrew Lucas for the organ-accompanied Psalm, and the composer himself—proving Lauridsen to be a master of sympathetic pianism (as well as a digital cymbalist).
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This compact disc, a successor to the first Hyperion recording of Morten Lauridsen’s music, the internationally acclaimed and Grammy-nominated Lux aeterna (Hyperion CDA67449), represents a reprisal of the successful collaboration of Lauridsen with Stephen Layton, Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia. This second disc features music by Lauridsen using predominately secular texts, thus comprising a further exploration of the American composer’s passionate devotion to poetry.
Few composers working today share such a deep and ongoing relationship with literature as Lauridsen: the composer has testified that his ‘passion, second to music, is poetry’. Through the study of poetry, Lauridsen continues to expand his aesthetic sensibility and expressive range. Lauridsen meditates on a poem for an extended period before making his initial musical sketches, over which he takes enormous care. The American composer is a perfectionist who marshals a formidable technique in order to create elegantly finished works of art; Lauridsen steadily hones a work until it radiates with a sense of formal rightness and inevitability.
Lauridsen’s craftsmanship further results in a remarkable balance between the contemporary and the timeless: his music often gives the uncanny impression that is has always existed, free from the constraints of temporality or fashion. Part of this aura of permanence is due to Lauridsen’s ongoing study of early music, a study that includes plainchant as well as music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Lauridsen has internalized both chant and early music so deeply that there is never a question of his music slipping into mere pastiche; rather, this repertory is the sure foundation upon which the composer has built the edifice of his style. As befits a composer who loves the human voice, Lauridsen’s music is essentially lyrical, and the spinning out of long-limbed melodic lines is one of his specialities. This lyricism pervades the fabric of the music on several levels through Lauridsen’s frequent use of contrapuntal procedures derived from Renaissance practice, so that each strand in the polyphonic texture has its own expressive arch, just as in Byrd or Victoria.
Literary insight and musical inspiration are fused in Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs (1980, orchestrated 1983). For this cycle, Lauridsen’s voracious reading led him to the poetry of the British poet and novelist Robert Graves. To select poems for the Mid-Winter Songs, Lauridsen read—and reread—the complete corpus of Graves’s verse. The composer has testified that he was ‘much taken with the elegance, richness and extraordinary beauty of [Graves’s] poetry and his insights regarding the human experience’. Lauridsen chose verse inspired by the poet’s obsession with his colourful mistress and muse Laura Riding, as well as poetry that reflected the measure of tranquility that Graves attained with his second wife, Beryl.
With the Mid-Winter Songs, Lauridsen boldly reinvented the ‘choral cycle’, imbuing this genre with unwonted emotional depth, formal sophistication and thematic consistency. Thus the Mid-Winter Songs constitute a five-movement choral symphony that evinces a virtuosic degree of integration: all of the main melodic motives developed throughout this score are announced in the dramatic opening measures. Designed as a Bogenform (‘arch form’), the Mid-Winter Songs possess an inner formal logic that does not preclude soaring lyricism—or searing expressivity, as in the opening movement, the harrowing Lament for Pasiphaë.
After the incandescent anguish of this opening lament, the second movement, Like Snow, is a madrigal-like scherzo whose references to winter aptly conjure up that icy icon of Graves’ romantic life, Laura Riding. The succeeding slow movement, She tells her love while half asleep, which Lauridsen describes as filled with ‘tenderness and warmth’, is an encomium to the poet’s second wife that forms the score’s emotional and formal climax. A second choral scherzo follows: filled with jazzy syncopations, Mid-Winter Waking conjures the poet’s joy at the reawakening of his inspiration, which is compared to the first thaw that presages the end of winter. The finale, Intercession in Late October, is a quiet prayer, deeply moving in its evident reluctance to return to coldness, both of weather and of the heart. An extended orchestral interlude recapitulates all of the thematic material, but the Mid-Winter Songs end, like several of Lauridsen’s cycles, in a manner at once poignant and unresolved.
If the creation of the Mid-Winter Songs was the result of the composer’s close reading of the works of a British poet, the origin of Les chansons des roses (1993) stems from Lauridsen’s abiding love of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Aside from poems written in his native tongue of German, Rilke created a substantial body of French verse. The first of Rilke’s French poems to be set by Lauridsen, a lovely and mysterious poem concerning a rose, was Dirait-on, which is scored for chorus and piano. In Dirait-on Lauridsen magically evokes the wistfulness of the chansons populaires immortalized by Edith Piaf. The artistic success of Dirait-on encouraged the composer to select four more of Rilke’s French poems celebrating roses; the result was the glowing choral cycle on this disc.
Just as with the Mid-Winter Songs, Les chansons des roses are cast as an arch form. Lauridsen devised an ingenious and subtly interconnected formal design by further developing the musical materials of the opening movement, En une seule fleur, in the third, De ton rêve trop plein, while bringing the materials of the second movement, Contre qui, rose, to full consummation in the fourth section, La rose complète. Thus Dirait-on, written first but placed last, becomes the voluptuous summation of the entire work. Lauridsen brilliantly emphasizes the cumulative quality of Dirait-on—which is filled with elaborate polyphony that flows by as naturally as a stream—by reserving the entry of the piano for this luminous finale. (While Lauridsen’s expertise at writing for choral forces is often commented on, his elegantly judged writing for piano is equally assured; as is evident on this recording, the composer himself is an expert pianist who coaxes particularly alluring sonorities from the keyboard.)
Unlike the extroverted intensity that characterizes the Mid-Winter Songs, Les chansons des roses are so intimate as to suggest an introspective self-communing. Lauridsen has remarked how certain lines in Rilke’s verse attracted him immediately and how in Contre qui, rose he was particularly touched by this poet’s expression of ‘the state of giving love and not receiving it back’. Like the German poet, the American composer has tapped a profound source of inspiration by contemplating the evanescent beauty of a rose. In his perceptive volume Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation William H Gass aptly describes how images of this flower pervade this sensitive poet’s œuvre: ‘Roses climb his life as if he were their trellis.’ So, too, in his Les chansons des roses, Lauridsen translates the poet’s love for roses into rapturous music that entwines its way throughout the trellis of the listener’s memory.
The three choral pieces using sacred texts recorded here do not constitute a cycle, but rather illuminate the composer’s development, and are connected across decades by Lauridsen’s love of early music. The two anthems to Psalm texts, I will lift up mine eyes and O come, let us sing unto the Lord (both 1970), are examples of Lauridsen’s style in embryo, as it were, for both were written while the composer was just twenty-seven years old. Both anthems evince the contrapuntal mastery that would prove an enduring feature of the composer’s technique. The pure and austere lines of I will lift up mine eyes, an a cappella setting of Psalm 121, evoke ancient organum and the imitative devices of Medieval polyphony. Complex chord structures and elaborate canonic procedures give O come, let us sing unto the Lord a sense of inexorable forward momentum. The coruscating organ part further enhances the prevailing mood of joy that pervades this anthem.
Commissioned by Harvard University Glee Club Foundation for the venerable Harvard Glee Club and completed in 2005—some thirty-five years after O come, let us sing unto the Lord—the supernal motet Ave, dulcissima Maria is Lauridsen’s tender setting for a cappella male chorus of a variant of the standard ‘Ave Maria’ petition. As Lauridsen notes in his preface to the score, this invocation ‘has only occasionally been set to music throughout history, most notably by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo’. Unlike Gesualdo’s motet, which—written as it was by a repentant murderer—is shot through with moments of anguish, Lauridsen’s setting radiates an otherworldly serenity; effective use is made of a set of finger cymbals, played on this recording by the composer himself.
With the Nocturnes (2005) Lauridsen undertook a particularly difficult formal challenge: to compose an integrated choral cycle that was simultaneously a triptych while allowing each of the panels to be performed separately. Displaying the same contrapuntal dexterity and using the same techniques of motivic interrelationship as the Mid-Winter Songs and Les chansons des roses, the Nocturnes are unusual within Lauridsen’s œuvre. Unlike either of the choral cycles featured on his disc, both of which use the work of a single poet, Lauridsen has here anthologized the verse of three twentieth-century poets, each of a different nationality: the German Rainer Maria Rilke, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, and the American James Agee. To ensure unity of conception amid this poetic diversity, the composer has cannily chosen three poems in which there are shared themes: night, romantic love and pantheistic rapture.
In the first of the Nocturnes, Sa nuit d’été, Lauridsen draws again upon the body of Rilke’s French poetry. Unlike the meditative inwardness of Les chansons des roses, however, the mood of Sa nuit d’été, established at once with rich harmonic structures in the piano, is one of sensual abandonment to the beauty of a starry night. (A glance at the composer’s sketches reveals how meticulously he plotted the vertiginous eight-part contrapuntal climax of this ecstatic work.) The second movement is a musical translation of Pablo Neruda’s great love sonnet, Soneto de la noche. While the first and third movements of the Nocturnes have prominent piano parts, Lauridsen emphasizes the intimacy of Neruda’s romantic poem by scoring it for unaccompanied chorus. Here the music is reminiscent of a quietly passionate Chilean folk melody, varied by Lauridsen with great delicacy and unobtrusive skill; the subtle phrase extensions found in this movement could be descendants of those in Scarlatti’s more meditative sonatas. The final panel of this triptych is a heartrendingly lovely interpretation of James Agee’s famous poem Sure on this shining night. In this evocation of the quiet consummation of a summer night—for both the opening and closing movements of the Nocturnes express differing degrees of aestival exultation—the luminous sonorities of the piano surround the intertwining voices with a halo of mellow resonance. Thus the Nocturnes conclude with a pantheistic benediction, brimful with deep emotion, which serves as a fitting conclusion to this midsummer pilgrimage.
Byron Adams © 2007