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Stephen PAULUS (1949-2014)
Far in the Heavens
Prayers and Remembrances (2011)
They Are All Gone [4:32]
Lord, Make Me an Instrument [5:11]
Music, When Soft Voices Die [5:58]
Great Spirit [4:06]
In Beauty It Walks [5:50]
Eternity [3:11]
Grant That We May Love [7:29]
Nunc dimittis (2008, rev. 2013) [4:05]
The Incomprehensible (2009) [5:34]
I Have Called You By Name (2010) [7:04]
Little Elegy (2010) [3:37]
When Music Sounds (2012) [4:37]
True Concord Voices and Orchestra/Eric Holtan
rec. 2013, Catalina Foothills High School Auditorium, Tucson, Arizona
Texts included
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-716 [66:14]

The American composer, Stephen Paulus, who is best known for his operas and choral music, died in October 2014 as a result of complications following a stroke that he suffered in July 2013. Only a matter of weeks before he was incapacitated by the stroke he had supervised the sessions for this disc of his choral works.

In 2009 I was impressed by a recording of his ambitious oratorio To be Certain of the Dawn (2005) (review). That work was commissioned in a remarkable gesture of inter-faith reconciliation by the Roman Catholic Basilica of Saint Mary, Minneapolis, as a gift to Temple Israel Synagogue in Minneapolis, in time to be performed in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945 and also to mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the papal encyclical, Nostra Aetate (“In our Times”) in which the Vatican condemned the practice of blaming the Jews for the death of Christ. The centrepiece of this new disc is also a commemorative commission. Prayers and Remembrances was commissioned by True Concord with the support of Mrs Dorothy Vaneck, a noted philanthropist who lives in Tucson, Arizona, to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity.

Prayers and Remembrances, which plays for about 35 minutes, is scored for SATB choir and orchestra. There are some limited passages for solo voices; here all the solos are sung by choir members. Paulus has taken a practical approach to the orchestration in more ways than one; and how refreshing it is to find a composer who doesn’t overwhelm singers – or the audience – with a vast orchestra, including all manner of exotic percussion instruments. It was intended to perform his work for the first time in a programme in which the other work would be Mozart’s Requiem so Paulus scored his piece for similar orchestral forces but he added flute, oboe, horns, harp – a very telling part, this – and percussion, though the latter is not used excessively. His key aim, however, was “to use the orchestra to adorn and emphasise the text”, as he wrote in an introductory note for the first performance. He added: “my intention, as always, was to make sure that the choir could be heard without being overwhelmed by the orchestra.” I’d say that he’s succeeded impressively in that aim. Granted, in a recording the balance can be adjusted for maximum clarity but at all times the balance between choir and orchestra is very satisfactory. More than that, Paulus’s scoring is a consistent delight; the orchestration is usually light and transparent – so the occasional heavier passage at a climax is all the more telling – and the orchestral material is always interesting.

Just for the record, the choir numbers 32 – eight singers per voice – and there is exactly the same number of players in the orchestra.

In view of the composer’s comment about wishing to ensure the choir can always be heard - on account of the importance of the words – I’m sorry to report that if I have a criticism of the choir it is that their words aren’t always ideally distinct. Indeed, even when following the text in the booklet it wasn’t always possible to hear the words. I should say that the words are much more clear in the other five works on the disc. But if diction is sometimes an issue that’s the only criticism I have of True Concord Voices. In every other respect they are a very impressive ensemble. I suspect the group comprises professional singers – that’s what it sounds like. The balance between the sections of the choir is consistently very good. Furthermore the tone is warm and there’s no question of the sound hardening when the choir is singing loudly. I think they’re a fine ensemble and I enjoyed their singing very much indeed.

What of the music? Stephen Paulus’ style is resolutely tonal and throughout this programme you will hear accessible and expertly crafted music. It seems to me that he had a natural affinity for the human voice. No outrageous demands are made on the singers – though I’m sure the music is challenging to sing well – and I formed the distinct impression that this would be rewarding music to sing. There were one or two occasions when it seemed to me that a musical idea and/or a section of text was being revisited perhaps once too often but there’s no denying that the music communicates directly.

Prayers and Remembrances is cast in seven movements and Paulus draws his texts from a range of sources, including the English metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan, St Francis of Assisi, Native American texts and the Prophet Mohammed. Though this is a work of commemoration the main thrust is, in the composer’s words, “hope, light and a future.” I think the texts that he chose and the melodious, consonant music to which he’s set them mean that he achieved his goals.

The setting of St Francis’s often-set prayer is a good one; the music is slow, gentle and, at times, radiant. In this movement much of the orchestral scoring is delicate. The setting of Shelley’s Music, When Soft Voices Die is tender and it includes a couple of short passages for a soprano soloist; the singer here is Kathryn Mueller and I loved the sound of her voice. The mainly slow and solemn music for In Beauty It Walks, a traditional Navajo prayer, is very effective; the choral writing is homophonic and the accompaniment has just a touch of primitivism to it. In the last movement Paulus combines a line from the Book of Leviticus, sung in Hebrew, and some words of the Prophet Mohammed. The music for the former is very beautiful while the words of the Prophet are set to music that grows in fervour. At the very end of this movement Paulus revisits some of the words of Henry Vaughan with which Prayers and Remembrances began. I think the score is thoughtful, sincere and eloquent and the attractiveness and evident feeling of the music draws the listener in. It’s performed here with considerable accomplishment and evident commitment. The choral writing is very good though I wonder if the score might have been even more effective if more use had been made of soloists.

The rest of the programme is equally effective. The Nunc dimittis is sung in English. According to the track listing it was revised in 2013. In fact, we learn from the notes that the revision actually took place during the recording sessions. The piece originally included an organ accompaniment but during the sessions Paulus realised that it might be effective as an a cappella piece and he revised it during a session break. I’ve not heard the original but the new version seems to me to work extremely well. It’s a mostly tranquil setting which contains some lovely music and choral textures. The annotator, Peter Rutenberg, observes perceptively that the piece makes an apposite coda to Prayers and Remembrances, even though it wasn’t conceived as such.

The text for I Have Called You By Name comes from the Prophecy of Isaiah. It’s a piece for unaccompanied choir and it’s deeply felt and very beautiful. Little Elegy is a touching, poignant piece, also unaccompanied, and the performance shows off ideally the lovely blend and balance of True Concord Voices. That’s true also of When Music Sounds except that the music is less subdued in tone than Little Elegy so we hear to good advantage the choir’s impressive dynamic range.

This is a fine disc. I appreciated the quality of the performances very much. The documentation is comprehensive and good. The sound quality is very pleasing also. This is a recording issued under licence by Reference Recordings under their Fresh! imprint so it’s not been engineered by their own technicians. This recording was engineered by Steven Kaplan and Daniel E. Naisman and I think they’ve done a very good job; the sound is clear and pleasing and shows both the performers and the music to good advantage. All concerned, performers and technicians, have done Stephen Paulus proud with this release and I’m sure he was delighted by what he heard at the sessions. It’s sad that the creative voice of a composer who wrote so effectively and understandingly for the human voice has now been silenced.

John Quinn
 

 

 




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