Recordings by choirs of mixed choral works by mixed composers can be something of a very mixed bag, the various styles and moods jostling each other without any sense of purpose and sometimes without any sense of propriety either. This disc presents a very imaginative approach to the problem. It centres around two substantial modern works by Morten Lauridsen and Paul Mealor (who also conducts the disc) which employ texts from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. These are then contrasted with settings of the same texts by composers who were working at the same time as the poets themselves. So for example we get to compare Mealor’s setting of Now sleeps the crimson petal with that by Holst, and Lauridsen’s setting of Se per havervi, ohimè with that by Monteverdi.
Lauridsen comes extremely well out of this competitive sort of environment. He takes the basic madrigal style and enhances it with a halo of choral sound which cluster around and reflect the melodic lines in an admirably close study of the madrigal texts themselves and their meanings. The translations in the booklet by Erica Muhl are excellent, precise and comprehensible without being over-flowery, rather like the original Italian texts themselves. Lauridsen’s often extremely beautiful music is well sung by the Con Anima Chamber Choir from Aberdeen in what sounds (and looks) like a particularly atmospheric local church, of which we are given lots of session photographs including some of the composer himself obviously enjoying the performances.
The original madrigals themselves, by Monteverdi, Gesualdo and others, are a mixed bunch and quite frankly that by Giralomo Scotto – setting a text by Machiavelli, of all people – is a laughably bad piece of composition. One reads in the booklet notes that he was a publisher, and if he had not been one doubts whether this madrigal would ever have found its way into print. The madrigals are all sung by soloists from the chamber choir, who do a fine job by them. Three of the same soloists also sing the mediaeval English There is no rose (as a near-equivalent of Mealor’s A spotless rose ) and this performance is an absolute highlight of the disc.
Mealor’s cycle Now sleeps the crimson petal is surprisingly close in idiom to Harbison; maybe there is a greater degree of choral blurring in the sounds he achieves, nearly coming close to Ligeti at times. That said, there is always a strong sense of melodic line and the harmonies serve to enhance rather than obscure this. There is another recording of this cycle – as indeed there is of the Harbison – and both the alternatives are given with rather larger forces, which means that the intricate vocal lines are not – as they often appear to be here – reduced to one voice to a part. This is particularly noticeable in the setting of Lady, when I behold the roses where the solo soprano counterpoint, finely sung as it is, overwhelms the melodic line which it should be accompanying. The recording by Tenebrae (on Decca) uses more sopranos on the descant line, and thus integrates it more closely into the texture. In the end, this sort of approach does the music greater justice. In fact the Tenebrae recording is obviously the one to go for if you want an entire disc of Mealor’s often magically gleaming choral music including the Ubi caritas sung at the recent Royal Wedding.
The two madrigals by Ward and Wilbye are finely done, but the Holst setting of Now sleeps the crimson petal for female voices only really does need a larger body of singers than the ten we have here; the beautiful setting by Mealor is in any case much superior to that by the relatively young and inexperienced Holst. The final two items on the disc comprise another piece by Lauridsen, a nice book-end to the Madrigali which open the disc, and an absolutely heavenly setting of Burns’s My love is like a red red rose by James MacMillan, which again would benefit from a larger number of singers to make its full effect.
Obviously there is no competition in this sort of recital, and the singing by the choir is always perfectly tuned and beautifully recorded. Lucky Aberdeen to have such a body in their locality! Could choirs making miscellaneous disc let us have more of this sort of imaginative programming please?
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