Seven Last Words from the Cross
rec. 2017, Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, USA
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92219 CD/BD-A [48:52]
The Seven Last Words spoken by Christ on the cross need little introduction to music lovers. Their simplicity, poignancy and spiritual profundity have inspired many notable composers, from Schütz and (supremely) Haydn, through Gounod and Franck to Gubaidulina and MacMillan. This album from the crack Boston-based chamber choir Skylark, however, uses the Seven Words (more properly, of course, phrases) in a different way from that favoured by most of these predecessors. That is to say, there is little, indeed no concerted focus on the words themselves – many of which do not actually appear in any of the texts sung. Rather, the sacred texts are used as a kind of framework, around which an extraordinarily varied 50-minute programme of unaccompanied choral music is structured. So, for example, “Behold your son; behold your mother” provides a theme under which three items are housed, with varying levels of obvious appropriacy: Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘Karitas abundat’, Frederick Buckley’s sentimental but undeniably moving ‘Break it Gently to my Mother’, and William Billings’s setting of David’s lament for Absalom from the Second Book of Samuel. What we have are, in essence, seven short sequences of “matters arising” from Our Lord’s utterances, bookended by a prologue and an epilogue.
A further guiding principle behind the disc’s layout is, as Matthew Guard puts it in his enormously helpful booklet note, “that we should present a program with a uniquely American character”. Hence we have Buckley, African-American spirituals and, above all, William Billings, like Skylark themselves a Bostonian. His “simple and somewhat angular music” (Guard), here exemplified in some five items, is not to all tastes; but it struck me here as more varied both in style and, particularly, in spiritual mood than I had anticipated. This is demonstrated especially when Skylark follow his melancholy fugue ‘When Jesus wept’ with, soon afterwards, his exultant ‘Jordan’ and powerfully passionate ‘David’s Lamentation’. Billings has tended not to travel well, so one of the upshots of this disc might well be, one hopes, to heighten awareness and appreciation of his works amongst a non-American audience.
Both of these features – the use of the Seven Words and the highlighting of American music – can be traced back to the circumstances under which the programme was devised and first performed – at Tenebrae’s second Holy Week Festival at St John’s, Smith Square in London, on Good Friday 2018. Billings in particular must have seemed an obvious visiting card to bring across the Atlantic; and, for all its diversity, there is no doubt that the programme as a whole comes across as well planned to enrich an essentially solemn spiritual occasion. In musical terms at least, Guard’s choice of material at no point comes across as arbitrary, and there are some quite remarkably successful counter-intuitive segues. How can the wonderful ex-Paul Robeson number ‘Deep River’ conceivably be followed by John Sheppard’s ‘In manus tuas’ from the mid-sixteenth century, you ask yourself in advance. But in practice, uncannily and indeed – to me – inexplicably, they emerge as a perfect match.
As a programme then, the disc works – even though (or in part perhaps because) its playing time is far from generous. And there are several real highlights along the way: I had forgotten, for example, how marvellous Sheppard’s anthem was, and made my first acquaintance with ‘Thann heilaga kross’ by the contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a 2009 setting of a sixteenth-century hymn which forges, as Guard again says, “a wonderful balance between the ancient and the modern”. The former elements include an opening drone that seems to emanate from an eerily powerful human hurdy-gurdy and, in general, an evident indebtedness to early polyphony. Meanwhile Thorvaldsdottir gives full but complementary rein to modernity in the form of some daringly squiffy harmonies and an overall sense of aching uncertainty. Overall, the six-minute piece struck me as little short of a contemporary choral classic in the making, and filled me with enthusiasm to explore more of Thorvaldsdottir’s work.
Of course, you have to have a good choir to programme and perform such pieces, and Skylark are certainly that. In matters of intonation, ensemble and diction they seem to me pretty much faultless, and they are beautifully recorded – probably still more beautifully on the surround sound Blu-ray disc that comes with the CD I listened to. Some nine of the choir’s eighteen members appear on the disc as soloists. Most are good rather than outstanding, and some make greater use of vibrato than European ears might expect; the pure-toned soprano Clare McNamara, though, who sings the Hildegard von Bingen chant as an unaccompanied solo, is as good as they come.
These, then, are performances on a very high level; and the disc offers much to enjoy, and indeed to reflect upon – not least at this time of the year. If the programme immediately appeals, you will for certain love the disc; if it does not, I would still recommend listening to it, since you will for certain encounter some unexpected delights.
Traditional: Were You There? [3:58]; New Britain (‘Amazing Grace’) [1:51]; Wondrous Love (arr. Robert Shaw and Alice Parker) [3:54]; Deep River (arr. Gerre Hancock) [2:50]; Just as I am [2:21]
William BILLINGS (1746-1800): When Jesus Wept [2:01]; Jordan (‘There is a Land of Pure Delight’) [1:49]; David’s Lamentation [1:04]; Plymton (‘In Deep Distress I oft have Cried’) [2:22]
Jaakko MÄNTYJÄRVI (b. 1963): Death May Dissolve (Fantasia on a Hymn by William Billings) [4:01]
Hugo DISTLER (1908-1942): Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär [3:45]
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN (c.1098-1179): Karitas abundat [1:54]
Frederick BUCKLEY (1833-1864): Break it Gently to my Mother [3:12]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963): Vinea mea electa [3:30]
Anna THORVALDSDOTTIR (born 1977): Thann heilaga kross [6:08]
John SHEPPARD (1515-1558): In manus tuas [4:12]