René CLAUSEN (b. 1953)
Life and Breath
All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord (1978) [3:24]
O magnum mysterium (2009 [3:38]
The Tyger (2009) [2:46]
The Lamb (2009) [4:46]
Mass for Double Choir (2011) [25:06]
Magnificat (1988) [6:18]
Prayer (2009) [4:24]
O vos omnes (1986) [8:08]
Set me as a seal (from A New Creation) (1989) [3:00]
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. 15-17 January, 2011, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Kansas City, Missouri, USA. DSD
Original texts, English, French and German translations included
CHANDOS CHSA 5105 [62:25] 

I first came across René Clausen as conductor of the excellent Concordia Choir, taking part in a recent King’s Singers CD (review). He has been their conductor for twenty-seven years. I wasn’t aware at the time that he is a composer also but this new CD offers proof of his abilities in that field. Charles Bruffy has made a number of very good discs for Chandos, conducting one or other of the two professional choirs that he directs, the Phoenix Bach Chorale or the Kansas City Chorale. This latest disc finds him in Kansas City.
The music on this disc is all for unaccompanied choir and, as befits a highly experienced choral director, it all sounds to be extremely well written for voices. That’s to say though the music is challenging - if it’s to be sung really well, as it is here - no outlandish or ugly demands are made on the singers; the textures are clear - and are made to sound so by Bruffy and his highly proficient singers; and the music most effectively exploits the choral resources at the composer’s disposal, be that straightforward SATB, eight-part writing or a layout for double choir. However, let me not give the impression that the music is merely accomplished from the technical point of view. It’s also most attractive and falls pleasingly on the listener’s ear. To show my hand straightaway I’ll make it clear that I enjoyed both the music and performances very much indeed.
The Mass for Double Choir is the most substantial work on the programme and the most recent. It was commissioned jointly by the choirs that Charles Bruffy directs in Phoenix and Kansas City and represented Clausen’s first opportunity to compose a Mass. It is an impressive work and the music in it is, perhaps, the most challenging in the programme - fittingly, since it’s a Mass setting - yet it remains accessible at all times. I think I’d describe it as a thoughtful setting in the sense that its tone is often relatively subdued and the dramatic elements in, say, the Creed are not exploited as vividly as in some other settings one has heard. In the Creed itself the start is fairly subdued in tone; this is not a forthright statement of belief. The ‘Crucifixus’ is very hushed - the choir’s dynamic control is most impressive - but the music fairly dances for joy at ‘Et resurrexit’. However, it’s not long before the reflective mood returns and, in essence, this lasts for the remainder of the movement. The Sanctus and Benedictus, combined in one movement, are light and joyful and the quietly eloquent Agnus Dei contains some of the most beautiful music in the whole Mass setting. This is a very rewarding composition.
I like Clausen’s setting of O magnum mysterium for 8-part choir. There’s a sense of gentle awe right from the start. This very beautiful setting would make a good alternative to the celebrated one by Morten Lauridsen which, though wonderful, is in danger of becoming too ubiquitous. The Magnificat is not designed for liturgical use, I suspect - oddly, only the second half of the doxology is set. The music strikes me as rather feminine in tone, and not because it opens with an important soprano solo. If it is indeed feminine that’s wholly appropriate to the nature of the text. Once again Clausen’s music is mainly reflective in tone though a more forthright stance is taken briefly at “He has shown the strength of his arm”.
I hope listeners will respond as positively as I did to Prayer, a setting in English of words by Mother Theresa of Calcutta. This is a gently radiant piece, very tranquil in tone and wearing an air of serenity appropriate to the author of the words. The performance is superbly controlled, not least the hushed dynamics at the end. In a completely different vein the first piece, All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord, makes an immediately favourable impression when you put the disc into the player. It’s a delightful, fresh piece and the open choral textures really catch the ear. The only thing that crossed my mind while listening to this otherwise admirable performance was to wonder if the singing was perhaps a little too smooth and whether the rhythms should have been more sprung. Of course, the performance may well follow the composer’s intentions fully - I haven’t seen a score - but perhaps a slightly more earthy approach might not have come amiss here.
That, however, is a minor point. The singing of the Kansas City Chorale is absolutely first class. They are a cultured ensemble and they produce an excellent sound. Evidently they’ve been scrupulously prepared by Charles Bruffy and their control, unanimity and use of dynamics are all exemplary.
I’ve been most impressed by my first encounter with the music of René Clausen. His music is beautifully crafted and it is very evident that the words he is setting matter a great deal to him. I’m sure the music is challenging to perform - and certainly to perform as well as is here the case - but it has been superbly served by Charles Bruffy and his flawless choir. The performances are enhanced by an excellent recording - I listened to this SACD in CD format.
John Quinn

see also review by Nick Barnard

Beautifully crafted, accessible music performed by a flawless choir.