Sono Luminus continues their dedication to high quality performances and recordings of a wide variety of music from the 20th and 21st centuries. In this lovely disc we are treated to a great deal of interesting and very listenable a capella choral music from the mid-twentieth century to the present.
It is this reviewer’s perception that a capella choral music is somewhat of an outlier in the classical music field and is generally not as well known as solo instrumental, orchestral, chamber music and such. (Band music is a similarly neglected area which is not frequently explored by many composers and not as familiar to audiences.) It is not an area very familiar to me but this recording appears to be one that can expand this niche considerably by virtue of the sheer beauty of these recordings.
There are eight pieces by seven composers of varying levels of familiarity. The most familiar names here are those of the late John Tavener (1944-2013) and William Schuman (1910-1992). (Schuman was also no stranger to writing for band music.) Some listeners may have heard of Jon Leifs (1899-1968), an Icelandic composer who should definitely be better known. (Curiously the only comprehensive information available in English on this composer is in Wikipedia.)
The remaining composers, Daniel Elder (1986- ), Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940), Robert Vuichard (1985- ) and (fellow Icelander) Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ). Thorvaldsdottir may be familiar to listeners via her earlier Sono Luminus release (reviewed here) as well as numerous other releases which definitely mark her as a rising star.
The disc opens with Elegy (2013) by Daniel Elder. It is the only piece which features soloists and is a touching piece which demonstrates the composer’s skill with this specialized genre.
Butterfly Dreams (2002) by John Tavener is a series of eight choral meditations based on Chuang Tse known for his “…Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”. Tavener’s work has pushed the solo choral genre more to the mainstream than nearly any composer of the last 50 years and this piece is a good example of how he has managed to do this. Tavener’s inspiration comes in part from the choral styles of eastern rite church music, a rich and sonorous sound.
Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov is apparently a classic in sacred music circles. In Latin this would be Pater Noster and in English, Our Father. This is a beautiful setting of the classic Christian Prayer.
Requiem (1947) by Jon Leifs is based on Icelandic folk poetry. It was written in response to his grief at the loss of his daughter who drowned at the age of 18. While not exactly representative of Leifs’ modern style it is a good example of the power of his invention in this heartfelt homage. This is perhaps the composer’s best known work.
Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard is another example of the deep knowledge of the specialized techniques available to composers in this genre. Vuichard appears to be a niche choral composer and one who has considerable skill. There is a rather modernist feel to this powerful meditation.
William Schuman’s Carols of Death (1958) is a sort of modern classic which has been recorded many times. There are three movements, each on a separate track. It is curious how well these pieces fit in style with the rest of the disc given the date of composition.
Beyond the Veil (2005) is a setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of an old Icelandic psalm. It is a prayer which is, in part, a meditation on death. The composer has a mystical/impressionistic style that suits this music particularly well.
Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener is definitely a modern classic. This piece pretty much marks the beginning of the change from his early modernist style to the sort of “holy minimalist” (if you will) style that followed his conversion to and immersion in eastern rite sacred music.
Skylark is a chamber choir (five voices to each part, SATB) and this is their second album. They were formed in 2011 and are under the direction of Matthew Guard.
This review is basically about the music but I have to say that this is also one of the most beautiful booklets I have seen. It is short on info about the music but the photography and graphic design by Collin J. Rae and Caleb Nei deserve special recognition as well. Each page features a photograph and texts of these pieces are tastefully printed across the photos. This really enhances the experience and seems to be in harmony with the overall production.
Dan Mercurio, producer, has definitely made something special here and one hopes that this will help promote this compositional and performance niche to a more common experience and will encourage composers to write for a capella choir as well. Daniel Shores is the recording and mastering engineer. I am unable to assess the DVD audio and can only imagine how it must sound. The CD itself is amazing to hear.
For an album ostensibly about death there is great joy and beauty to be found here. Highly recommended, and not just to fans of choral music.