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Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970) Cloudburst and other choral works
i thank You God for most this amazing day (1999) [6:05]
I hide myself (1991) [2:51]
Sleep (2000) [5:33]
i will wade out (1999) [2:45]
Go, lovely Rose (1991) [4:07]
When David heard (1999) [12:57]
hope, faith, life, love (1999) [3:50]
Cloudburst* (1993) [8:25]
With a lily in your hand (1991) [2:27]
This Marriage (2004) [2:59]
Water Night (1995) [5:03]
A Boy and a Girl [2002) [4:25]
Her sacred spirit soars (2002) [5:08]
Lux aurumque (2000) [4:08]
Polyphony/Stephen Layton.
*with Stephen Betteridge (piano); Robert Millett (percussion);
pupils of The Lady Eleanor Holles School, Hampton, Middlesex
rec. The Temple Church, London, 3-5 January 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67543 [70:50]

Last year Stephen Layton and Polyphony gave us a very fine CD devoted to the music of the American composer, Morten Lauridsen (b.1943) review

Now they follow that up with a programme of music by another, younger American composer, Eric Whitacre. Simply as a point of reference I’d say that anyone who responds positively to Lauridsen’s music should warm equally to Whitacre’s muse. I first encountered his work last year when I reviewed a CD of Christmas music that included ‘Lux aurumque’, with which this present CD concludes, I was impressed and intrigued by the piece so I was keen to explore Whitacre’s music further with Polyphony’s help.

Eric Whitacre was born in Reno, Nevada. In the very good liner notes accompanying this disc Meurig Bowen reveals that the young Whitacre had "a musical upbringing that matched the lack of focus and patchiness of most of his contemporaries". Despite that he was admitted to study music at the University of Las Vegas, whence he proceeded to the Juilliard School of Music in 1995 to study with John Corigliano and David Diamond.

There is some very beautiful music on this CD. The harmonies are often rich and close and to my ears Whitacre has a real feeling for how to write for the human voice. I doubt his music is easy to sing but he makes no outlandish demands on his singers and the music unfailingly falls gratefully on the ear and complements very well his chosen texts.

I think it’s worth quoting what Meurig Bowen has to say about Whitacre’s music. It is very aptly described thus: "Purity, directness of expression, a keen sense of climax and anti-climax, a wide-eyed receptiveness to moments of ecstasy: these are constants and key characteristics in [his] often sublime music. By the standards of the last century’s more adventurous choral explorations, it is fundamentally conservative music, with few surprises or innovations harmonically or rhythmically." If the contents of this CD are representative of Whitacre’s output to date then I think that verdict is very fair and accurate. It has to be said that much of the music is slow moving and listeners may not want to hear the whole disc at one setting. But the music always sounds to me to be expertly crafted and its sincerity and the ease with which Whitacre communicates demand respect. It’s firmly rooted in and respectful of the traditions, vocabulary and syntax of Western choral music and none the worse for that.

The recital opens with a shrewd choice in the form of a setting of e.e.Cummings’s poem, ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day.’ The effect that Whitacre achieves here is quite splendid, rising from a quiet, simple beginning to a burst of fervent openhearted choral harmonies. It’s memorable and arresting. Don’t ask me why, since this is an entirely subjective and instinctive opinion, but it seems to me that only an American could have written that phrase. The rest of the setting lives up to the promise of the opening. The other two Cummings pieces are equally successful. Since the composer himself has referred to the three pieces as a cycle I’m a little puzzled as to why they are separated on the disc but listeners can programme their players to hear the settings consecutively.

Whitacre’s skill in placing and sustaining a climax is evident in several pieces, not least at the heart of ‘Sleep’ where the music is powerful and impressive. Perhaps the most individual piece on the disc is ‘Cloudburst’ itself. This is the only piece that involves any instrumental accompaniment. In this piece more vocal effects are used than elsewhere but these add significantly to the range of Whitacre’s palette of colouring. At the climax (track 8 from around 6:00) Whitacre deploys piano, wind chimes, thunder sheets and handbells and the singers are also required to clap their hands, click their fingers and slap their thighs. This written description doesn’t begin to do justice to the composer’s imagination, I readily admit. The climax is, in fact, overwhelming and creates the illusion of a tropical rainstorm with amazing reality. It’s highly original and effective.

Less effective, I fear, is the longest piece in the programme, ‘When David heard’. Here, I find, the trouble is the repetitive nature of the music. Small musical fragments are repeated time and again before, it seems, Whitacre moves on to the next fragment, which, again, is often the subject of excessive repetition. I honestly feel that were the piece to be pruned to half its length it would be much the better for it since it contains some good ideas, such as the impressive hushed opening. If I may say so, one has only to think of the infinitely more succinct setting of the same text, albeit in a very different idiom, by Thomas Weelkes, to realise that economy of means and gesture can be most effective.

However, the remainder of the programme is much more successful. I can imagine that the simple and very beautiful ‘This Marriage’ will become a popular favourite – and so it should. ‘Lux aurumque’, to which I’ve already referred, is another fine piece and I was greatly taken with the grave beauty of ‘Water Night’, another piece in which dynamic range and climax are used most effectively. ‘Her Spirit Soars’ is a most impressive piece indeed and here the music is built most convincingly to a magnificent and ecstatic final climax.

The singing of Polyphony under Stephen Layton’s discerning direction is superb throughout. The recorded sound is first rate. The choir is recorded clearly and with just the right amount of space around the voices. The excellent notes are provided in English, French and German and the full texts are supplied.

This is a very fine disc indeed. I’ve enjoyed it greatly and now that I’ve had the chance to sample more of Eric Whitacre’s music I believe that he’s a highly significant composer with a very genuine gift for choral writing and one, moreover, with that priceless ability to communicate strongly and effectively with his audience. I hope that this disc will be widely heard; it deserves to be. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it.

John Quinn



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