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Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
Mid-Winter Songs (1983) [19:03]
Les Chansons des roses (1993) [17:12]
I will lift up mine eyes (1970) [3:14]*
O come, let us sing unto the Lord (1970) [3:22]*
Ave, dulcissima Maria (2005) [7:04]*
Nocturnes (2005) [14:39]
Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia (1), Polyphony, Morten Lauridsen (piano) (2, 6); Polyphony, Andrew Lumsden (4)/Stephen Layton
* first recordings
rec. Temple Church, London, 3-4 January 2006. Midwinter Songs: St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, 3 April 2006. DDD
HYPERION CDA67580 [65:17]

It was the enthusiastic review by my colleague, John Phillips, of a disc of Lauridsen’s choral music by the Los Angeles Master Chorale that alerted me to Lauridsen’s œuvre beyond the now almost ubiquitous O Magnum Mysterium. It’s relevant to mention that disc, which I rate as highly as John does, since two of the works that appeared on it - Mid-Winter Songs and Les Chansons des roses - are also included on this new and very welcome CD. This is their second disc devoted to this composer’s vocal music and they seem to be establishing a position as European champions of Lauridsen.
The present disc includes three choral cycles. The earliest of these is the set of five Mid-Winter Songs. These settings of poems by Robert Graves (1895-1985) were originally composed for SATB chorus with piano accompaniment in 1980. Subsequently Lauridsen orchestrated them in 1983, the date given on this disc. However, the Los Angeles recording offers what is billed as the first recording of a revised 1990 orchestration. That, I suspect, is the version used by Stephen Layton too. I haven’t seen a score but the orchestral forces listed in the respective booklets are identical, except that the Los Angeles orchestra fields three extra string players, and the accompaniment sounds identical.
The songs are a rewarding listen and it’s instructive to compare and contrast the two recordings. The Los Angeles choir is slightly larger, fielding forty-eight singers, twelve to each part; Polyphony comprises thirty-nine voices. To my ears the Los Angeles conductor, Paul Salamunovich, opts for a more consciously moulded, smoother sound from his singers and the effect is emphasised by the recording: his performers are placed further from the microphones and the acoustic is “softer.” By contrast, Polyphony are placed closer to the microphones, though not excessively so, and their singing is less weighty and more incisive.  Though the two performances are different both are truly excellent and very worthy of the collector’s attention.
The contrast between the two performances is most marked, I think, in the quicker pieces. The second movement of Mid-Winter Songs, ‘Like Snow’, is a nimble, dancing scherzo. There’s a greater degree of crispness in the Polyphony performance and I like that very much. They’re also more intimate in the next song. ‘She tells her love while half asleep’, which is the emotional cornerstone of the work, and I don’t think that sense of intimacy arises just because the British choir is slightly smaller. The last of the five movements, ‘Intercession in late October’, includes a reprise of material from the opening movement to excellent effect. However, much of the music in this movement comprises gentle, prayerful choral passages. Both choirs deliver these sections beautifully but I find Polyphony marginally more successful, especially in the rapt hush that they achieve at the very end.
Les Chansons des roses also consists of five settings, again by one poet. In this instance Lauridsen takes French poems by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and the music is even more integrated and cyclical than was the case in the Graves work. The cycle grew out of one setting, ‘Dirait-on’, which is the only one of the cycle that features an instrumental accompaniment, in this case a piano. The piano part is played on both the present recording and on the Los Angeles disc by the composer himself. The success of this setting led Lauridsen to compose four further songs. To be truthful, I find ‘Dirait-on’ the least successful of the set. I rather agree with Byron Adams, the excellent annotator for the Hyperion disc, that it “evokes the wistfulness of the chansons populaires immortalised by Edith Piaf”, but the music sounds rather repetitive. The other four songs are splendid. The second of them, ‘Contre qui, rose’, deploys beautiful textures and long-breathed vocal lines. The sound world of O Magnum Mysterium, composed only one year later, is very much pre-figured here. It’s superbly sung by Polyphony – though the Los Angeles performance is also gorgeous though some might find the singing a bit too obviously moulded. The fourth song, ‘La rose complète’ develops the material of the second song and Lauridsen achieves a real sense of ecstasy. Polyphony serve him superbly here. In the lighter, quicker music of the cycle, encountered in the first and third songs, I think the crisper, clearer delivery of Polyphony gives them an edge over their American rivals.
The third cycle, Nocturnes, is a much more recent composition, here receiving its debut recording. Yet again Lauridsen’s music is very cyclical and though the three songs are designed to be suitable for separate performance the material is very closely linked in all three. This time each of the three songs is a setting of a different poet. For the first, ‘Sa nuit d’été’, Lauridsen turns once more to Rilke. The second song is a setting of a wonderful poem in Spanish by the Chilean, Pablo Neruda ((1904-1973), while James Agee (1909-1955) furnishes the text of the third song. The Rilke and Agee settings include piano accompaniment, here supplied once again by the composer, while the Neruda piece is unaccompanied. The Rilke setting is profound and atmospheric and is sung with great sensitivity. The Neruda piece is quite lovely; I think Lauridsen responds to the wonderful imagery of the poem quite marvellously. Much of the music is serene, which makes the vigour of the music for the third and fourth stanzas more of a surprise – and all the more effective.
It’s a brave American composer who would choose to follow Samuel Barber in offering a setting of ‘Sure on this shining night’ since that inspired Barber to compose one of the very greatest of all twentieth-century art songs. Actually, Lauridsen doesn’t choose exactly the same selection of lines from the Agee poem, Permit Me Voyage, that Barber set. Interestingly, I’ve recently been listening to a choral arrangement of the Barber, which I find doesn’t work at all – at least for me – because the solo version is so complete of itself. Lauridsen’s composition, on the other hand, does work, I find. Indeed I think it’s very successful. The simple musical material is used effectively and eloquently and I think this setting could well become a “hit” by itself though personally I’d always prefer to hear the full cycle, which seems to me to constitute a very satisfying whole. These are lovely songs and I’m delighted to have made their acquaintance.
Three shorter settings of religious texts complete the programme. I will lift up mine eyes and O come, let us sing unto the Lord are fairly early pieces. I’m glad to have heard them but I don’t think they add significantly to our knowledge of the composer. Ave, dulcissima Maria, on the other hand, is a much more recent work and I think it’s quite marvellous. It’s a setting for male voices only and it opens with a quasi-plainsong passage, discreetly decorated by little tinkles on finger cymbals – courtesy of the composer. As sung by Polyphony this music evokes quite magically the ambience of a monastic cloister, an effect enhanced by the suitably resonant acoustic of The Temple Church. The main body of the music (from 1:09) is increasingly ecstatic in tone and has a tremendous cumulative power. Both the music and the way it’s delivered evoked for me the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. The fervent singing is quite magnificent, with the tenors on the top line especially open-throated. At 4:41 there’s a surprising – and highly effective – harmonic shift and change of choral texture. Without access to a score I can’t be sure but it sounds to me as if male altos are briefly added to the choir at this point. The piece ends, as it began, with the chanting in the cloister.
This is a superb disc on every count. The music is excellent and it’s superbly performed. Moreover the performances have been captured in splendid sound. The Los Angeles disc is not eclipsed for it too is a fine achievement but, as I’ve tried to point out, there are differences between the two approaches to the music and, though both seem to me to be equally valid, if forced to choose I’d have to opt for the Polyphony CD. What probably clinches it is that so far as I know the Los Angeles disc is not available outside the USA, which is a great pity, though as I discovered it’s easy to obtain it through
I recommend this new disc from Polyphony without reservation. Though 2007 is only two months old I feel sure this will be one of my Recordings of the Year.
John Quinn    

see also review by John Phillips




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