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OF THE MONTH
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OF THE MONTH
Morten LAURIDSEN (b.
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]
Britten Sinfonia (1), Polyphony, Morten Lauridsen (piano)
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
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
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 Amazon.com.
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.
review by John Phillips
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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