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American Choral Premieres
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Four Motets, Op. 268 (1973) [11:54]
Egon COHEN (b. 1984)
Stabat Mater (2006) [8:01]
Paul NICHOLSON (b. 1963)
Velum temple (1998) [4:03]
Paul FRENCH (b. 1959)
Who Am I? (2007) [5:37]
Easley BLACKWOOD (b. 1933)
A King James Magnificat (2004) [12:49]
Robert KREUTZ (1922-1966)
Sapulis Suis (1960) [2:07]
William FERRIS (1937-2000)
Lyrica Sacra (1962) [7:32]
William C. WHITE (b. 1983)
Nunc Dimittis (2007) [8:23]
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Behold, My Servant (1973) [8:06]
William Ferris Chorale/Paul French
rec. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, May 2007 and May 2008
CEDILLE CDR90000109
[64:10]

 

Experience Classicsonline


Choral conductors know that there is an abundance of fine music being composed for choirs nowadays, much of it within the range of competent amateur groups. Three composers named almost at random – Javier Busto, Bob Chilcott, Morten Lauridsen – produce works which, whilst being very individual, have in common the unmistakeable sound of contemporary music combined with real musical sensibility and originality. Most important of all, though, their mastery of choral writing ensures that their pieces work and sound well when sung. This disc gathers together a collection of works receiving their first recordings and sung by the excellent William Ferris Chorale from Chicago. All are written to sacred texts, and liturgical music is clearly an important part of the life of the group. Apart from Hovhaness and Easley Blackwood, of whose music I know not a single note, and George Rochberg, whom I know only from a challenging disc of symphonies on Naxos, even the names of the composers here were new to me. 

Admirers of Alan Hovhaness tend to be quite vociferous, so I hope his symphonies are more inspired and convincing than these four motets, his Op. 268, no less. For music composed in 1973 the language is conservative, which is not a problem at all if the ideas are original and memorable. Unfortunately, I can’t say this is the case here. The composer relies on repeating words as a way of bringing out the meaning of the text. Thus, in the first motet, which is set to a single sentence from Jeremiah, the word “Blessed” is repeated over and over again, and the same technique is used elsewhere to frankly irritating effect. A few surprisingly chromatic chords are seemingly thrown in to vary the harmonic language, and what little contrapuntal writing occurs is academic and lame. If all that weren’t enough, the choral writing itself simply does not sound. One feels that the notes could have been given to a different kind of ensemble altogether with neither loss nor benefit.

The distribution of the voices in Egon Cohen’s Stabat Mater make it sound like choral music in a way Hovhaness’s motets don’t. The language here is more adventurous, though the only thing likely to frighten the horses – or the Chicago public – is a strangely dissonant pair of “Amens”. I’m not sure the composer has found quite the right music for this profoundly sad text, sung here in English, but his piece is interesting and affecting for all that.

Paul Nicholson is the choir’s accompanist and there are many lovely moments in his short piece, all the more pleasing because the music has clearly been conceived with a choir in mind. He is concerned, too, to bring out the meaning of the text, and the fact that the work is almost exclusively homophonic is only a problem because so little of the programme up to now has exploited the fact that a choir is made up of several voices and giving them different things to sing at different times is one way of creating variety.

Paul French is the conductor of the William Ferris Chorale, and with his piece Who Am I? the pattern emerging in this collection becomes established. Largely homophonic, the music is tonal with a scattering of chromatic notes and surprising chords, not always discernibly prompted by the text, and so, one fears, employed mainly to preclude any accusation of living in the past. The words are by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a dissident imprisoned and executed by the Nazis, and explores the feelings provoked by his incarceration. The music gamely follows these sentiments, right up until the final line in which the writer suddenly affirms his faith in God, to music which suddenly shifts into harmonies of super-rich, cloying sweetness.

The booklet notes praise Easley Blackwood’s abilities as a teacher of composition at the University of Chicago and as a pianist noted for his interpretations of composers such as Ives and Boulez. His own works exist in a number of styles “including atonal and microtonal composition”, but he chose to write A King James Magnificat in “tonal, triadic harmony, with touches of jubilant polyphonic inspiration from Handel and from Bach, who wrote perhaps the most famous of all Magnificats.” Oh dear, what can I say about this piece? If a student had presented it as an exercise in composition using tonal harmony, I think the teacher might have suggested another go at it. This music sounds commonplace to my ears. The lines “He hath holpen his servant Israel” are sung over a repeated, rhythmically chanted “Israel, O Israel” in the men’s parts which I’m ashamed to say put me in mind of a kind of rubbishy pastiche of American Indian music. Then the doxology begins with the last of several pale imitations of baroque imitative counterpoint. Blackwood’s reputation and obvious credentials are such that I must keep trying with this piece, or at least seek out others by him in the hope of finding something more convincing.

Robert Kreutz’s tiny piece follows the same homophonic, tonal trend as the others in this programme, but his harmonies are more varied and original and I was left wishing there was more music by this “noted composer of music for the Roman Catholic Church” on the disc.

William Ferris was the founder of the Chorale. The booklet refers to him as “a distinguished composer as well as a church musician”, and he was clearly an admired figure locally. His three motets fit into the now established pattern but, like Kreutz, he seems to have been blessed with a refined ear and a richer aural imagination than some of his colleagues represented here. Feelings occasionally run high in these motets, and this is conveyed by real harmonic intensity. These are pieces that one will come back to, and could even imagine wanting to recommend to choirs on this side of the Atlantic.

By including the complete passage from St. Luke, that is before and after Simeon’s famous words, William C. White contrives to make a Nunc Dimittis that lasts over eight minutes. He also uses the other tool at his disposal, repeating words, but this tricky technique seems particularly redundant here. Near the end, the words “and said unto Mary” are repeated four times with an additional “unto Mary” for good measure. Now we know that repeating text is not in itself an unforgiveable vice. If nothing was repeated Handel’s Messiah would be over and done with in half an hour. But there must be a musical or a dramatic reason to repeat words, and all too often this is not the case here. There are some lovely sounds in this six-part piece nonetheless, and the idea of framing the Nunc Dimittis words by using the whole Bible story is such a good one that I’m surprised I’ve never come across it before.

The text of George Rochberg’s piece combines words from Isaiah and from Psalm 148, with a single line by William Blake which is used as a kind of refrain. It is quite a dramatic work featuring some solo voices, notably a pure-toned soprano, Kathryn McClure. There is a fair amount of word repetition in this piece too, but Rochberg seems to have a better idea of the reasons for doing it and executes it with altogether more skill than the majority of his bedfellows. The language is the most adventurous on the disc, but even here, so the notes tell us, the work comes from that part of his career where he decided to reject serial composition in favour of neo-Romanticism. One feels this suits the choir’s purpose very well.

In the first part of Ferris’s Lyrica Sacra, he sets, in Latin, the same text as did Vaughan Williams in his tiny motet O Taste and See. Curiously, it provokes from Ferris some of the most highly charged writing on the whole disc, whereas Vaughan Williams’ piece is little more than a series of simple, diatonic imitative entries, a technique, in other words, that I have been citing as weakness in this programme. Well, that’s the mystery of music for you, and I can’t even begin to explain why Vaughan Williams’ exquisite piece is a masterpiece in miniature whereas none of the works included on this disc comes even close. To finish, though, I would like to recommend that anyone interested in what a first-rate composer, and a devout one at that, can do with sacred texts without straying very far from simple tonality, should listen to Duruflé’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes.

William Hedley 

see also Review by John Quinn



 

 
 


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