René CLAUSEN (b.1953)
All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord1 (1978) [3:24]
O magnum mysterium2 (2009) [3:38]
The Tyger3 (2009) [2:46]
The Lamb4 (2009) [4:46]
Mass for Double Choir1,2 (2011) [25:06]
Magnificat2 (1988) [6:18]
Prayer (2009) [4:24]
O vos omnes1,5 (1986) [8:08]
Set me as a seal (1989) [3:00]
Sarah Tannehill1 (soprano); Pamela Williamson2 (soprano); Rebecca Lloyd3 (soprano); Lindsey Lang4 (soprano); Matthew Gladden5 (tenor)
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. Our Lady of the Sorrows Church, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, 15-17 January 2011
CHANDOS CHSA 5105 [62:25]
Discovering the Kansas City Chorale under their inspirational director Charles Bruffy a few years back reviewing a disc for this site was something of a Damascene moment for me. Since then I have to say that I have sought out their discs whenever possible and I continue to be stunned by the sheer beauty and unanimity of their singing. Given that and my predilection for unfamiliar repertoire and this disc was eagerly awaited.
Composer René Clausen was a name completely unknown to me. The liner describes him as; “one of America’s most popular choral composers, creating music that is suited to all levels of ability and expertise”. Needless to say the level of expertise here is supremely high to the certain benefit of the music. Away from composing Clausen has spent most of his working life as an educator and again the liner quotes him as feeling he has a “pedagogical responsibility to the audience” by being “a conduit between serious music and the public”. This translates into music of instant appeal with nothing that is going to challenge a listener brought up on an Anglican diet of Herbert Howells. The music revels in a fairly high level of what I might term ‘white-note dissonance’. By this I mean music that rarely moves from consonant chord to consonant chord but the closely voiced clashing harmonies produce the attractive ringing dissonances that composers such as Howells made their own. In that strength, for me, also lies its weakness. Too often, for all the obvious craft and skill in their composition, they are rather predictable. Clearly for many, enriching the repertoire with such mellifluous music can only be a good thing bringing pleasure to both performers and audiences alike for me its just a bit too bland and safe.
The music performed here dates from opening All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord of 1975 to the very recent setting of the Mass (commissioned in part by the Kansas City Chorale) from 2011. Even on a superficial acquaintance Clausen uses certain choral effects often enough for them to become musical fingerprints. I like a lot the way he has vocal lines washing over each other causing momentary chords to appear and vanish with a fluid beauty. Its not exactly radical or even unusual but it works to perfection. But then elsewhere his setting of words or treatment of spirit behind the words is rather predictable. The Mass is particularly prone to this – the dancing Gloria [track 6] revisiting an emotional landscape trod all too often by others to greater effect. So the unison opening of the Credo – “I believe in one God” and the bell-imitations of the Sanctus lack originality. That being said, I can imagine that choirs enjoy singing this music a lot. Clausen’s practical knowledge of choral singing means his music is full of passages which are as practical in their ‘sing-ability’ as they are gratifyingly juicy to perform. The Kansas City Chorale has exactly the kind of super-fine control and subtly graded colouring that benefits this music. The sopranos in particular are put through their paces with much of their part lying high and exposed – notice how with one exception solo lines in these works are the exclusive province of the sopranos. Sarah Tannehill and Pamela Williamson take some solos requiring stratospheric latter-day-Allegri-Miserere-like ascents. O vos omnes [track 12] has a spectacular example of this and it is one of the most impressive and concentrated works on the disc. To my ear this is Clausen at his most inspired; he juxtaposes various texts as well as vocal effects; the soaring soprano, angrily muttering basses, chromatically sliding vocal lines creating a tonal mist out of which emerges the glorious Lutheran chorale O sacred heart now wounded. It is a moment of pure sacred theatricality which is the high point of the disc for me by some distance. The final consolation of the major key Amen as serene as it has been hard won. Likewise the Set me as a seal which closes the disc. This stands comparison, indeed surpasses, Walton’s setting of the same text. Given the overall reflective mood of the programme this is a perfect envoi; “for love is strong as death, many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
Technically this is a superb disc. I listened to it as a standard CD although it is offered as a Super Audio CD. The church location provides both a perfect ambience and atmosphere for this sequence of sacred settings. The choir is positioned perfectly in the acoustic benefitting from its warmth without any loss of detail or impact. Although I have no other performances against which I can make comparisons, Charles Bruffy’s interpretations feel instinctively right. Long years of experience together from choir and director allow the singing to have a natural ebb and flow that removes any sense of tyrannical barlines or four-square rhythms, only the rhapsodic remains. The liner offers analyses of the works which are interestingly descriptive without getting bogged down in technical jargon. The short biography of Clausen which opens the note does read rather like a publicist’s puff – I would have preferred something longer on information and shorter on aspiration. Full texts in French, German and English as well as the original (usually) Latin are provided. Clausen steers clear of the easy-listening popularity of Eric Whiteacre or John Rutter whilst with such works as O vos Omnes shows he can be on a par with his models – the masters of 20th Century Anglican music. I can imagine this disc being immensely popular with his admirers. Because at his best he is so good I am a little less forgiving of the generic nature of some of the works presented here but at the end of a long frustrating day this would be a disc to offer balm and great beauty in equal measure.
At the end of a long frustrating day this would be a disc to offer balm and great beauty in equal measure.