The first thing I ought to say about this disc is that it has
been received with rapturous acclaim elsewhere. It features
in the best-seller lists. What follows should be read with that
Reviewing recently a recital by the Dutch choir Cantatrix, I had this to say about two of Eric Whitacre’s pieces, Lux Aurumque and Water Night: “One lush, multi-voiced chord follows another, creating lots of atmosphere, but repeated hearing doesn’t reveal much more than this. Neither is there much in the way of melodic writing in either of the works given here.” Both pieces feature in this collection, in superior performances. I have listened to them attentively and find no reason to change my view.
The rest of the music was new to me. Five Hebrew Love Songs was originally written for soprano, violin and piano, to words by the soprano Hila Plitmann, who later became the composer’s wife. One can understand, then, that he refers to the songs as “profoundly personal”. They are performed here in a later arrangement for choir and string quartet, and a tambourine is played at one point. There is a fair amount of single line writing, perhaps inevitable given the work’s provenance, and the work does reveal a certain melodic gift. The music is richly scored, sonorous and almost exclusively diatonic, making for very easy listening indeed. It can be enjoyed at a first hearing. The words are sung in Hebrew, but the English translation reveals them to be inconsequential, though this is no bar to accomplished vocal music. I imagine the little Vivaldi-like flurries from the quartet during the fourth song are a response to the mention of snow in the text, but otherwise the music for this song, as for the others, is of unrelieved sweetness. This impression is emphasised by the scoring, both for quartet and choir, and I found it ultimately distasteful.
The Seal Lullaby, for choir and piano, was composed for an animated film that never saw the light of day. The charming words, a lullaby sung by a seal to her young, are by Kipling. About the composition of this piece the composer writes “a simple, Disney-esque song just came gushing out of me.” Just so. The use of silence in A Boy and a Girl is presumably a response to the eternal silence of death as evoked in the final verse. Apart from this, I can find nothing in the text to justify or explain the choices behind the notes or chords of this piece.
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine uses a wider range of choral texture and technique than the previous pieces in this collection. This includes a couple of passages where the writing resembles an Italian Renaissance madrigal, and then, near the end, some pleasingly economical flying noises, diluted by percussion once again. It’s a very entertaining piece and must be very effective in concert, but how many times one would want to listen to it remains to be seen. The words of Three Songs of Faith are by e. e. cummings, so readers will understand that the faith in question is rather unorthodox. Yet faith it is, with the third song beginning with the line “i thank you God for most this amazing day”. (I imagine that the title of this song and the first line ought to be identical. There is a discrepancy as printed in the booklet, one example among many of poor proofreading.) Listeners will be moved, no doubt, by the sentiments expressed in the words and music of this work. I find it all, again, insufferably sweet and over-rich. Perhaps the most ambitious piece in the collection is The Stolen Child, to a poem by Yeats, composed for the National Youth Chorus of Great Britain and the King’s Singers as a piece they could perform together. The composer points out that the music for the young singers represents the innocent children, whilst that for the King’s Singers represents those who would seduce them and spirit them away. The piece is powerful in its way, with a particularly haunting refrain, but the music does not evoke two opposing worlds in my mind, and the words are difficult to hear much of the time. I don’t think everyone will agree with everything that Charles Anthony Silvestri, who wrote the Latin text of Nox Aurumque, writes about that piece in the booklet, and the composer’s introduction to Sleep is a particularly strange example of his habit of recounting incidents in his life without elucidating the music one bit. This, the last piece on the disc, fades away at the end.
Eric Whitacre’s enthusiasm for British choirs is on record, and here, with three of them, including one he has formed himself, the performances are simply stunning. The recording is very glamorous: witness the piano in The Seal Lullaby. The booklet is very comprehensive, including all the sung texts and copious notes on the performers. The composer has written his own notes on the music; others will be less irritated by them than I was. I counted thirteen images of the composer. The album is dedicated, amongst others, to “my father and mother, for a warm and sky-filled childhood.”
All this music demonstrates the composer’s remarkable ear for
choral texture, and there are many moments of near-sublime beauty.
The unrelieved richness tires me out, however, and I long for
more in the way of melodic line and real counterpoint. I’m happy
to admit that this may be no more than a simple matter of taste,
and in any event Eric Whitacre’s reputation is assured, just
as Puccini’s was, in spite of Shostakovich’s observation to
Benjamin Britten: “No Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvellous
operas but dreadful music!”