In 2012 I reviewed a very fine disc of choral music by René Clausen, which I enjoyed very much. Only a few weeks ago a disc devoted to the choral music of Stephen Paulus came my way, and as with the Clausen disc, I was impressed (review). So I was delighted to receive this disc for review and just as pleased to discover that there is no repertoire duplication between it and the two CDs previously mentioned.
I’ve already heard several admirable recordings by Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway. In those earlier discs a lot of attention has been focused on music from the Baltic States. Now they turn their attention to two almost exact contemporaries who have their musical roots in the strong choral tradition of the American Midwest.
René Clausen is a noted choral conductor so perhaps it’s unsurprising that his music for choir should be so understandingly written. I would imagine, from what I’ve heard of his output to date, that his music requires great control because quite often he writes in a slow tempo and in long phrases. Yet I’m pretty sure that the music is extremely rewarding to sing and when you get choirs of the accomplishment of the Kansas City Chorale—on the earlier disc that I reviewed—or the Royal Holloway choir then the listener gets a feast for the ears.
If I have a minor criticism of Rupert Gough’s selection of Clausen pieces it is that with the exception of A jubilant song all are slow in tempo. However, when the music is as beautiful as the pieces he has chosen—and so well sung—criticism is rather disarmed. In pace is a wonderful way to start the recital. Written in the aftermath of a visit to Auschwitz in 1996 it’s a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The chosen text is the Respond used at the office Compline during Lent: ‘In peace I will lie down and take my rest’. Clausen describes the result as a choral benediction. The writing is in up to eight parts and the textures are frequently rich but never unclear. It’s a moving, eloquent piece which impressed me very much and it culminates in an especially fine doxology. Rupert Gough’s choir give it a fervent yet scrupulously controlled performance.
Three Whitman settings follow. The last invocation is rapt and expressive, the harmonies used beautifully to illuminate the words. A jubilant song fulfils the promise of its title; it’s a much more extrovert setting and it’s sung with great zest. Near the end a rapturous soprano solo sets off carolling among all the sopranos; it’s a lovely effect.
La lumière is a setting of a poem by Yves Bonnefoy and it’s sung in French. I find it fascinating to hear Clausen, chameleon-like, adopt successfully a different, Gallic harmonic style. Here his music is supple to match the nature of the French language and the result is gorgeous. Pater noster, a Latin setting of the Lord’s Prayer, was commissioned for this recording. Clausen, we are told in the notes, sought to respect the text and not to “overdress” it. I’d say he’s succeeded.
The last Clausen piece is a Christmas offering w=from which the album takes its title. Calm on the listening ear of night is a setting for choir with harp and violin of a poem by Edmund H Sears (1810-1876). Sears is better known as the author of the words of It came upon the midnight clear. I don’t think this present poem is the most memorable I’ve read but Clausen sets it charmingly. There’s a pastoral feel to the first two verses then the joyful Christmas message of the Angels stimulates radiant music. This is a most attractive piece.
The Christmas theme carries over into the beginning of the Paulus selection. His arrangement of Gabriel’s message for choir and harp has nothing fancy about it—and is all the better for that. The piece is simple and appealing and the natural resonance of the recording venue enhances it. I hadn’t realised until reading the notes that Stephen Paulus was the first American composer to receive what has become the annual commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. That was Pilgrim Jesus (1996), an interesting setting of words by the contemporary poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland. For the earlier set of four pieces comprising Jesu carols Paulus went back in time, selecting texts that range in date from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. The result is four good pieces scored for choir and harp. As we read in the notes, there is no sentimentality here yet the music exerts a strong appeal. The writing for voices is excellent, as usual with this composer, and he deploys the harp very effectively. The second of the settings, The ship carol, is delightful, the music buoyant and joyful. Waye not his cribb, a setting of lines by Robert Southwell (1561-1595) is slow and thoughtful. The text contrasts the poverty of the surroundings into which Christ was born with his kingship and Paulus illustrates this by setting up a dichotomy between dissonance and major key consonance. All four settings are imaginative and well worth hearing.
I like Arise, my love very much. The text is the often-set passage from the Song of Songs - set, for example, by Patrick Hadley in My beloved spake. Paulus responds to the poetry in a way that’s not as highly charged as some composers’ settings have been. However, it’s still highly effective and there’s considerable beauty in the harmonic language. He shows a keen ear for textures and harmonies in Evensong, a reflective night piece. The programme comes to an end with The road home. Here Paulus takes words by Michael Dennis Browne, a poet with whom he frequently collaborated, and sets them to his own arrangement of the tune ‘Prospect’, which is found in the compilation Southern Harmony (1835). The result is beautiful and very moving and I was not surprised to read that this piece, with its apposite words, has been sung at many services and events to commemorate Paulus since his death in 2014. The harmonies are lovely and in the last of the three stanzas a plaintive mezzo solo, here beautifully sung by Leilani Barratt, provides a plaintive descant. This simple, eloquent piece, in a dedicated performance, is the perfect end to a first rate recital.
I’ve been impressed by the very high standards of singing and musicianship shown by the Choir of Royal Holloway every time I’ve heard them and this latest disc maintains their very high standards. Clearly Rupert Gough trains this student choir exceptionally well. Their singing has been captured in an excellent recording by one of Hyperion’s best teams, namely Adrian Peacock (producer) and David Hinitt (engineer). The very good notes are a collaboration between Stephen W Salts and Rupert Gough.
This disc is a fine addition to the choir’s discography. There’s been a considerable amount of excellent choral music written in America in the last seventy years or so and I hope Gough and his choir will explore the literature a little further.