It came as a bit of a surprise to see that it was over five years since I reviewed Hyperion’s CD of Eric Whitacre’s choral music. On that occasion Polyphony was conducted by Stephen Layton. To the best of my knowledge that was the first all-Whitacre disc and in the intervening years his music has become very popular, both with performers and listeners. More recently Whitacre himself conducted a Decca recording of his vocal music, which I have not heard - it was reviewed by William Hedley.
I was impressed by the Hyperion disc, both in terms of the music and the performances. Though I’ve heard quite a number of Whitacre pieces subsequently, I have to confess it’s been quite a while since Polyphony’s recording came off my shelves, so much so that when I reviewed recently a disc by Merton College Choir that included When David Heard I forgot completely that I’d encountered the piece on the Polyphony disc. In some respects I think that was healthy because I appraised the work as if it were new to me. It was interesting – and somewhat reassuring – to look back on the Hyperion review and discover that I formed an almost identical view, namely that the work is overlong and repetitive.
Listening once again to a complete programme of Whitacre’s music now for the purposes of reviewing this present disc I find myself having doubts. I should say at once that the doubts have nothing to do with the standard of the performances. I’ve heard and admired several previous CDs by the Elora Festival Singers. This one confirms those favourable impressions. The choir makes a fine, clear sound and their singing falls very pleasingly on the ear. I’d say they are skilled advocates for Whitacre’s music. No, the doubts concern the music itself.
I think the problem I now have with Whitacre is that his choral pieces all sound rather similar. The music is often extremely beautiful and the composer undoubtedly has a good ear for choral textures – or at least for beautiful, smooth textures, but I’m left wondering how much there is below the surface. In his booklet note Tim Sharp has this to say:
“The texture of Whitacre’s music is seamlessly smooth. When added to the conventional harmonies, tonal melodies (if indeed melody in the usual sense can be found) and steady, regular rhythms, the listener is left to focus on those vertical moments of secundal harmony, and remarkable words.”
I wonder if, unwittingly, Mr Sharp has hinted at a weakness in Whitacre’s music in referring, accurately, to smoothness, conventional rhythms and steady, regular rhythms. There isn’t anything in these works that is going to repel listeners – far from it – but I’m increasingly unsure that there’s much more to the music than surface beauty. I should add that Tim Sharp argues strongly that Whitacre’s music is “music that attracts those, like the composer, that are fascinated by sound.” Up to a point I can accept that but I have more of a difficulty with his statement that “Sonority enjoyed as a total experience is the strength of this music, making it unforgettable, yet without a melodic motive to catalogue the sonic experience.”
Casting aside my doubts, I wouldn’t for one moment deny that without exception the pieces on this disc each contain some lovely passages. A Boy and a Girl and This Marriage, for example, are both enticing to hear and Her Sacred Spirit Soars achieves an impressive, ardent conclusion. There’s also much to enjoy in Lux Aurumque; it’s unsurprising that this piece has become one of the composer’s most popular pieces. The e e cummings setting, i thank you God for this amazing day, also continues to impress. On the other hand, though When David Heard has its moments, as I commented in reviewing the Merton College disc, I feel it loses its way quite significantly in the middle, where limited material is repeated far more than it can stand – and to no useful purpose that I can discern. So, individual items are good to hear but I think problems are likely to arise – if, indeed, they do – if you try to listen to the disc right through. It makes perfect sense for Noel Edison and his fine choir to offer an album devoted to Eric Whitacre but that doesn’t mean that it has to be heard as a complete programme. I’d advise dipping into two or three items at a time.
If you already have either of the all-Whitacre CDs to which I’ve referred there is, inevitably, quite a bit of duplication: each disc contains about half a dozen items that feature on the Naxos programme. However, if you don’t have either of those full price discs then this newcomer offers what I think is a pretty representative and inexpensive introduction to Eric Whitacre’s music. As I’ve already said, the performance standards are high and the recording quality is good