This CD will open a lot of eyes. I put it in the drive feeling a sense of
duty and a little apathy. Within the first five minutes, I couldn't
concentrate on my reading. This choral music is frequently transfixing,
astonishing and totally unexpected.
Margaret Ruthven Lang had a promising start as a composer, then gave up
the art in middle age and set about destroying all her scores. "I had
nothing to say", she explained, tersely, and kept having nothing to say
until her death at the age of 104. She was a Boston Symphony subscriber for
91 years. To put that in perspective, when she started attending BSO
concerts, Winston Churchill was a schoolboy; when she stopped, Princess
Diana was a schoolgirl.
She was lying about having nothing to say. You can hear her gifts on the
first track, "The Heavenly Noel", a haunting multi-layered construction for
solo alto, organ, a handful of singers, and delicate instrumental
accompaniment. We start with organ, then the alto, accompanied by a spare,
haunting piano and what sounds like a string quintet. The women's chorus
slips in so gradually and magically that I spent a minute trying to figure
out if they were an organ.
Lang had a gift for catchy carols, too, like "When Christ Was Born", which
ought to be a favourite in churches everywhere. "In Praesepio", a hymn with
canon-like entries for the singers, also feels like an inevitable Christmas
If the sacred music is a little more old-fashioned in spirit (except
"Heavenly Noel"), the secular songs are often thrillingly adventurous.
"Wind" calls forward to jazz and the Swingle Singers; the women's choir
sings of being made "tipsy" by the wind as their voices ping up, down and
around, providing a sound-picture of the wind itself. Lang sets four
different Irish limericks to music, including an old man who says "Well!",
which includes a part for what sounds like an old telephone bell.
It's not all great. Parts of "The Night of the Star" are pretty slow and
dull, to me, and in the "Te Deum" there are a few lines where the syllables
amusingly fail to fit the lines. In the "Irish Mother's Lullaby", the choir
is overshadowed by a gorgeous cello solo, lovingly played by Lang's
great-grand-niece, Natasha Farny.
The booklet notes take some time properly explaining every work, and also
listing every performer on this disc. There are a lot of performers: in
fact, four conductors alone. Texts and biographies are included, too. Aside
from the occasional balance issue-Farny's cello is not just more interesting
than the singers in "Irish Mother's Lullaby", it's also louder-the sound is
very good too.
Add Margaret Lang to your list of composers to discover, and soon. My
MusicWeb International colleagues have been even more enthusiastic about her songs
(a 2011 Recording of the Year
) and solo piano music
. If you haven't discovered this eccentric,
interesting American voice, now's the time to do so. You could do one better
than I have by writing your review in the form of a limerick.