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Stephen PAULUS (b. 1949)
To Be Certain Of The Dawn (2005)
Text by Michael Dennis Browne (b. 1940)
Barry Abelson (cantor); Elizabeth Futral (soprano); Christina Baldwin (mezzo); John Tessier (tenor); Philip Cokorinos (bass-baritone)
Minnesota Chorale; Minnesota Boychoir; The Basilica Cathedral Choir; The Cathedral Choristers
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, February 2008. DDD
Texts and English translations included
BIS-CD-1726 [59:13]
Experience Classicsonline

This remarkable oratorio was commissioned in 2001 by the Roman Catholic Basilica of Saint Mary, Minneapolis, as a gift to Temple Israel Synagogue in Minneapolis. It was to be in time to be performed in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945. It was also to mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the papal encyclical, Nostra Aetate ('In our Times') in which the Vatican condemned the practice of blaming the Jews for the death of Christ. The moving spirit behind this highly symbolic gesture of reconciliation was Fr. Michael O'Connell rector of the Basilica from 1991 to 2008 and noted for his work in fostering Jewish-Catholic dialogue,

Before going further, can I commend to readers an extensive on-line study guide to the piece, which includes detailed essays, the full libretto and a selection of audio extracts from the work? You won't need to read it all - some of it is clearly designed to broaden the knowledge of school-children about the Holocaust, for example. However, the guide presents more information about the piece than is contained in the booklet note - for example, I resorted to the on-line search that led me to this guide because it's not really clear from the booklet how much of the libretto is Mr Browne's original text and how much of it is a synthesis of other writings, say from scripture. The inclusion of audio extracts in the on-line guide also offers an unusual 'try before you buy' facility for prospective purchasers of this CD.

To Be Certain of the Dawn was premièred in St Mary's Basilica in 2005 by many of the forces that subsequently took part in this studio recording, though only Christina Baldwin among the present solo quartet took part in the first performance. It's an ambitious work, both in terms of subject matter and forces involved, though the full ensemble is rarely deployed together. The idiom of the music is accessible and anyone who responds to the music of composers such as Britten, Copland or Tippett will have little problem with the musical language. Tippett's name is particularly relevant because there are distinct parallels between this new work and A Child of Our Time.

The use of a chorus of children is a particular feature of the work for, as Michael Dennis Browne writes in his booklet note, the work commemorates the huge numbers of Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust. I think that one of the greatest successes - if I may use that term - in the work is the touching, innocent music that Paulus writes for the children's chorus. It's very moving to hear the children sing passages that portray the innocence of the Jewish youngsters, who were often ignorant of the fate that awaited them. It's clear from the study guide that one important aim of this whole project has been to increase awareness of the Holocaust among the young of today.

In the second of the work's three sections, the four vocal soloists have extended passages in which they assume the characters of Jewish youths. These sections, which I suspect set original words by Browne, are more variable in their impact. One such, 'Old Man, Young Man', a duet for baritone and tenor, impresses but I'm less comfortable with an earlier duet for the two female soloists, 'Two little girls in the street', not least because the singers come across as grown ups trying to sound like children. Perhaps 'Old Man, Young Man' benefits because the excellent baritone Philip Cokorinos is easily the pick of the solo team. 

The adult choir has some powerful and dramatic music to deliver, for example in the short chorus 'This we ask of you' in Part II. The chorus sings well and incisively throughout the work. Paulus uses a large orchestra, including what sounds like a sizeable percussion section, and the Minnesota Orchestra plays excellently, enhancing the strong reputation they have built in recent years. The orchestra includes a shofar, the ancient Jewish ram's horn instrument, which is heard, briefly but tellingly, at the very beginning and near the end of the work. Osmo Vänskä welds the substantial ensemble together expertly and leads a committed and assured performance.

The work is rich in symbolism, as may be imagined, but one example is especially potent. At three key points in the piece the words 'You should love your neighbour as yourself' are sung. These words have huge significance because, as Paulus tells us, they were inscribed in Hebrew and in German on the only stone left standing when the Nazis razed a Berlin Synagogue to the ground. Each time the words occur the same simple, eloquent and very touching music is employed. The first appearance is at the conclusion of Part I when the cantor intones them in Hebrew over a soft orchestral accompaniment. The next time the words occur is midway through Part II when the cantor's intonation is accompanied by the main chorus singing them in German: that's an ironic gesture and a moving moment. And, perhaps inevitably, it's with a third appearance of the words, sung by the choirs and the cantor, in Hebrew only, that Paulus brings the work to a close. The peaceful, consoling way in which these words are treated at the conclusion of the oratorio holds out the hope of reconciliation. It's made all the more moving because in the section that immediately precedes it each of the solo quartet has a brief solo in turn in which they sing a short phrase written by a Holocaust survivor.

As I said earlier, this is an ambitious piece. It's also an eloquent and sincere work of art. At this stage, having only listened to it a few times, I think that composer and librettist have succeeded in achieving their aims but more listening is required to make me sure of that. I am already sure, however, that it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I suppose the acid test will be the extent to which other performers take it up and I certainly hope that happens because it's clear that this deserves to be regarded as much more that a pièce d'occasion. Its cause can only be helped by this splendid and committed recording, captured in excellent sound, and BIS are to be congratulated on their enterprise and vision in issuing it. I urge you to hear it.

John Quinn



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