Whitacre: Light & Gold (CD review)

The Eric Whitacre Singers; Laudibus; The King's Singers; Pavao Quartet; Hila Plitmann, spoken Hebrew; Christopher Glynn, piano. Decca B001 4850-02.

American composer, conductor, and lecturer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) has enjoyed a relatively sudden spurt of popularity in the past half dozen years or so, thanks in large part to several best-selling record albums of his mostly choral music, as well as to his "Virtual Choir" projects on YouTube. In 2010 he signed a long-term record contract with Decca, the present disc apparently his first release for the company.

You may have heard his Hyperion recording Cloudburst several years ago; it earned him a Grammy nomination. Light & Gold is much in the same vein, the music sung and played by various groups, including his own Eric Whitacre Singers, the choir Laudibus, the King's Singers, and the instrumental Pavao Quartet, with assorted soloists thrown in. Light & Gold roughly follows a path from morning till evening, with texts running high to Latin, which Whitacre, a student of the Juilliard School, seems to favor.

The program begins with one of Whitacre's most-popular pieces, the title work "Lux Aurumque" ("Light and Gold"), written in 2000 and sung by Whitacre's choir. The work is sweet, pure, amiable, and elegant, an appropriate representative of the remaining music on the disc. It is quite accessible, quite lilting and lovely, the singers' voices floating over the listener in angelic tones. The composer based "Lux Aurumque" on a poem by Edward Esch, translated into Latin: "Lux, Calida gravisque pura velut aurum Et canunt angeli molliter modo natum: Light, warm and heavy as pure gold and angels sing softly to the new-born babe."

The other pieces on the program follow suit. There are sixteen brief choral works altogether, the next being "Five Hebrew Love Songs" from 1996, which Whitacre describes as "troubadour songs for piano, violin and soprano," here adapted for choir and quartet. Each song is a little "postcard" capturing a specific moment that he and his girlfriend at the time (and now his wife) Hila Plitmann shared, she writing the lyrics and he doing the music.

"The Seal Lullaby" is especially fetching, written in 2004 for a movie that never happened. Like the other melodies, it is appealingly simple and direct. "Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine," composed in 2001 to a poem by Whitacre's friend Charles Anthony Silvestri, appears more animated than the others, with a stronger female choir. And so it goes unto the last track on the disc, "Sleep," which Whitacre originally intended as music for the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Unfortunately for the composer, Frost's estate had shut down any use of the poem, so Whitacre asked his friend, the aforementioned Silvestri, to write new words to the music, which we have here.

Now, there is a "however." While I doubt that any listener would not respond to the gentle honesty and often ravishing beauty of Whitacre's music, I couldn't help thinking as I listened that a lot of it seems alike: the soft, tranquil tone; the calm, soothing tempos; the straightforward, sometimes sentimental style; the uniformly reassuring voices. It all tends to make the individual pieces merge into one indistinguishable mass. A lovely mass, to be sure, but a lightweight, cushy, more-than-comfortable mass as well.

One can hardly fault Decca's sound, recorded at St. Silas Church, London, in August, 2010. Voices are clean and smooth; the stereo spread is extensive; and midrange transparency is ideal, without being in any way bright or abrasive. In other words, the disc's audio qualities complement the pleasurable nature of the music.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa