Surprised by beauty – Minimalism
in choral music Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943) And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world (1997) [6.09] Arvo PÄRT (b.
The Beatitudes (1990) [9.04] Ruth LOMON (b. 1930)
Transport (2006) [6.45] William DUCKWORTH (b. 1943)
Southern Harmony (excerpts) (1980-81) [24.20] William WALKER (1809-1875)
Selection from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835) [4.50]
Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank
rec. June 2007, Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill,
Massachusetts. BOSTON SECESSION
title of this disc is “Surprised by beauty – minimalism
in choral music”, but actually very little of the music
on this disc is strictly minimal. Whilst Gavin Bryars
and Arvo Pärt have some minimalist credentials, their
music on this disc is very far from the process music
which represents true minimalism. William Duckworth’s
1980-81 piece, Southern Harmony is perhaps the
closest to genuine minimalism, but these re-workings
of 19th century fuguing tunes still eschew
the hypnotic repetition of the 1970s music of Glass and
Reich. As for Ruth Lomon’s Transport, no-one would
ever mistake this for a minimal piece.
why use this title? In his introductory essay in the
CD booklet, Robert Fink relates minimalism to arte
povera, the minimalism of materials, finding beauty
in common everyday things. Frankly, I think it would
have been better to eschew a theme altogether and simply
present this fascinating recital as a collection of fine
20th century choral music. In fact, looking
at the four composers involved, it is fascinating how
four people all born within a span of 13 years could
have such a variety of creative response.
Secession is a professional vocal ensemble of around
25 voices whose repertoire ranges from medieval to contemporary.
This is their second CD, their first being titled Afterlife:
German Choral Meditations on Mortality, a disc which
included music by Hugo Distler, Brahms, Ruth Lomon and
an Edwin London realization of Bach. So the group obviously
do not tread the easy route when it comes to CD programming.
disc opens with Gavin Bryars’ 1997 piece And so ended
Kant’s travelling in this world, an unaccompanied
choral work which uses an extract from Thomas de Quincy’s
account of Kant’s final hours. The composer sets the
text melodically but in a way that is quite austere and
conversational, eschewing any dramatic choral effects
until the end where Bryars repeats the title three times.
The effect is inward and understated and quite difficult
to bring off; Boston Secession do so brilliantly, performing
the work with quiet intensity and beauty of tone.
control of tone continues into Arvo Pärt’s 1990 Beatitudes,
his first setting in English. Pärt creates his beautiful
music out of the simplest of materials, but there is
no mistaking the complexity of intention and the mysterious
intensity of the results. Boston Secession, under conductor
Jane Ring Frank, start in perfectly hushed tones and
avoid big effects until the end. Perhaps they are a little
too seduced by simple beauty of tone. A degree of edge
to the performance would not come amiss, but this is
to quibble, given the choir’s fine control. Heinrich
Christensen is the perfect accompanist, underpinning
the choir discreetly until the end when Pärt allows the
organ to appear out from under the choir and impress
us with a final cadenza.
Lomon’s Transport is an altogether more dramatic. Transport is
a movement from her oratorio Testimony of Witness.
It uses a series of texts extracted from personal memoirs
about being transported during the holocaust. This is
a difficult subject, but Lomon and her collaborator Susan
Fromberg Schaeffer have chosen the texts well. When it
comes to the music, I am a little less convinced. Lomon
sets the work for choir and chamber orchestra; she seems
to veer between a need to reflect the difficulty of her
subject and a desire to create accessible music. Her
response is interesting and musical without ever tugging
the heart-strings or horrifying us. Perhaps it would
have been easier if the text had not been so close to
the subject; if the piece had included a little distance.
Boston Secession and their orchestra give Lomon’s work
a strong performance; other listeners might find the
work more moving than did this critic.
final contemporary work on the disc is an extract from
William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony. Boston Secession
perform seven movements from the twenty movements in
Duckworth’s complete work. Duckworth took tunes from
the 1835 publication The Southern Harmony and Musical
Companion which compiled the traditional shape-note
songs and fuguing tunes used by the semi-literate Baptists
and Methodists of the rural South. The original songs
are remarkable, sounding raw and unfinished to modern
ears. In fact Boston Secession perform three of the original
tunes at the end of the disc. These sound remarkably
modern in their uncompromisingly bare harmonies. In fact
Duckworth’s re-workings have the effect of making these
pieces sound rather more polite. But Duckworth is endlessly
inventive and choirs would do well to investigate his Southern
CD booklet includes the article by Robert Fink and all
the texts of the pieces.
is an interesting disc, showcasing a fine choir. Their
conductor gets strong performances of each of the pieces
on the disc. I am note quite sure that the recital quite
adds up to a concrete whole; for me the mix of pieces
does not quite gel. I felt that there were two competing
discs in here, a minimal/post-minimal one and another
one entirely. But if the mix of works appeals then look
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