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Silence and Music
Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
A prayer of the Middle Ages [4:10]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
To be sung on the water, Op. 42 No. 1 [3:06]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Evening [3:33]
Tarik O’REGAN (b 1978)
O vera digna hostia [4:10]
Pavel CHESNOKOV (1877-1944)
Salvation is created, Op. 25 No 5
Guillaume BOUZIGNAC (1587-1623)
Surge, Amica Mea [2:04]
Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
The Lord’s Prayer [4:06]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sanctus from Mass in G major [2:25]
arr. Ronald STAHELI (b 1947)
Were You There [5:19]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Silence and Music [5:46]
Brevitas/Matthew D. Nielsen
rec. 9-11 July 2015, St Ambrose Catholic Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Texts and English translations included
BREVITAS B427090-03 [38:39]

Brevitas is a fairly new vocal ensemble. It was founded in 2013 and comprises 36 professional singers (7/11/7/11). It’s interesting to note that the lower voices outnumber the sopranos and tenors; I wonder if that’s deliberate. Their Director, Matthew D. Nielsen, is a young conductor, composer and singer with a strong CV already. He is also a recording producer and is co-producer of this disc. So far as I know this is the group’s debut recording.

The choice of repertoire is enterprising and speaks strongly to me. It’s good to find this American choir singing recent British repertoire. O vera digna hostia by Tarik O’Regan dates from 2003. It’s one of three motets from his Sequence for St Wulfstan. The Latin text derives from a medieval manuscript, the Portiforium of St Wulfstan, which is a liturgical almanac probably prepared for and bearing the name of an 11th century Bishop of Worcester. It’s a very interesting piece and if I say that the composer seems more concerned with vocal textures than with clarity of words I don’t mean that as a criticism. I know of at least one other recording, made in 2005 by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge and Timothy Brown (Collegium COLCD130).

There is no other recording of Gabriel Jackson’s The Lord’s Prayer, which here receives its first recording. That’s a bit surprising as it dates from 2002 and choirs seem to queue up to record his music. Rather unusually Jackson has used an English translation that isn’t so often set to music so far as I know: the translation by the early English Reformers, William Tyndale (1494-1536) and Miles Coverdale (1487-1569). For the most part Jackson’s setting is subdued and prayerful in tone, the textures light. However, at ‘For thyne is the kyngdome’ the music becomes richer and more ecstatic. This passage is as brief as it is effective and the setting reverts to quiet delicacy. It’s a lovely piece and its debut recording is excellent.

American music is rightly featured. The Howard Hanson piece makes an excellent opener, showcasing as it does what will be trademarks of this choir’s qualities throughout this disc. The sound of the ensemble is bright, forward and well blended. The tone is clear and so are the words. Furthermore, Hanson’s piece enables Brevitas to display a fine dynamic range. In short, the sound is very pleasing. There’s beautifully shaded, nuanced singing to admire in the Samuel Barber piece too.

I was delighted to find a piece by the Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds because I’ve come to admire his music very much. I’ve heard Evening before, on a fine Ešenvalds disc that I reviewed some time ago. I recall that in the notes accompanying that disc Gabriel Jackson wrote that the piece “doesn’t really go anywhere, it simply is, full of innocent wonderment at the close of the day.” It’s very well done here by Nielsen and his choir who give a subtle, expertly balanced performance. The choir’s purity of sound is a decided asset here and I was very taken with the lovely soprano solo (Rebecca Warthen Johnson) near the end.

The repertoire net is cast wider to include short pieces by Chesnokov and Poulenc. Chesnokov’s music displays beauty and fortitude and here ravishingly done. The excerpt from Poulenc’s Mass is light and dancing at first and then the singing becomes warm and full at the ‘Hosanna’. Glad as I am to hear the Poulenc it’s also a frustrating experience. One wonders why one short movement was wrenched from the Mass: there would have been ample room on the disc for the full work.

Towards the end we are treated to a slow, reflective close harmony arrangement of an African American spiritual. I use the word “treated” advisedly. Not only is Ronald Staheli’s arrangement excellent but the performance is simply outstanding, the singing very poised and polished and the feeling behind the singing evident. To close we have more English music in the shape of Silence and Music. This lovely setting by Vaughan Williams was his contribution to A Garland for the Queen, a set of ten short vocal works commissioned by the Arts Council to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and first performed on the eve of the Coronation in 1953. VW was supplied with a wonderful poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams and he responded to the words most imaginatively and poetically. Michael Kennedy described Silence and Music as a piece “in honour but not in imitation of Stanford … [and] a thing of grave beauty.” The grave beauty comes out in this expert account.

I’ve been very impressed with the work of Brevitas on this disc. The singing is immaculate. One feature that I find particularly appealing is the attractive, pure sound of the soprano line underneath which the other parts are beautifully balanced. To make matters better the recording itself is excellent. It was made in a modern church and the engineers have achieved a very fine, natural sound which shows off the choir to best advantage.

With reluctance, however, I must enter a couple of reservations. The booklet is very nicely produced but contains not a single word about any of the pieces. Not all the repertoire will be familiar to purchasers; surely some notes could – and should - have been included? Secondly, notwithstanding the excellence of the singing it’s disappointing that the playing time of the disc is so very short. Let’s hope that this release represents the choir putting their collective toe in the water and that future CDs will offer much more generous playing time. After all, the effect of hearing this disc is to leave the listener wanting more.

Overall this is a most auspicious recorded debut and I hope we shall hear more of this fine choir on disc before long.

John Quinn

Brevitas website

 

 




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