Two Contemporary Choral Recordings (CD reviews)

Works by Pärt, Vasks, MacMillan, and Runestad

By Karl W. Nehring

Presented for your musical enjoyment are two recent releases of choral music, the first comprising works by three composers whose names should be familiar to most music lovers, the second by a composer whose name is less likely to be known. The first features music traditionally religious in nature, while the second is more literary in orientation but not exclusively secular. Indeed, both releases are quite capable of lifting listeners’ spirits. To look at them both together is to see a kind of quick candid snapshot of current approaches to contemporary choral composition, performance, and engineering.

Stabat: Includes works by Arvo Pärt, (Da Pacem, Domine; The Woman with the Alabaster Box; Magnificat; Nunc Dimittis; Stabat Mater); Peteris Vasks (Plainscapes); James MacMillan (Miserere). Graham Ross, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905323.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, (b. 1935) is the featured composer on Stabat, which includes five of his compositions. By now, most classical music lovers should be familiar with his music, as his compositions have been recorded by myriad performers on a variety of labels. For those of us of a certain age, though, Pärt, was a newcomer who suddenly appeared on the scene with music unlike anything we had ever heard before. I can still vividly recall the first time I heard his music. While I was in graduate school, I had a weekend job as a security guard for Liebert Corporation, a manufacturer of computer support equipment that at that time basked in having recently been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” One of my late-night duties was to drive from my post at the main plant to check on their training center, which was a couple of miles or so away. On one of those late nights as I got into my car I found that the classical FM radio station was playing something completely engrossing, music such as I had never experienced before. I was spellbound! I sat and listened to the end of the piece, eager to find out what this music could possibly be. It turned out to be the landmark ECM release Tabula Rasa, featuring the music of Arvo Pärt as played by the then-young violinist Gidon Kremer and of all pianists, the jazz icon Keith Jarrett (who, sadly enough, has suffered a couple of strokes over the past couple of years and is  no longer able to play the piano). Since then, I have been an avid Pärt fan (as well as a fan of Kremer and Jarrett) and have auditioned and owned many of his numerous compositions over the past several decades.

All of the Pärt, compositions in this collection have been recorded before, typically several times, but that does not diminish the quality or appeal of the performances on this CD by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. As a bonus, the inclusion of striking compositions of a similar musical and emotional appeal by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) and the Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) makes for a coherent, vibrant, and entertaining program.

The program kicks off with two Pärt compositions for choir alone. Da pacem, Domine was commissioned by the Catalonian conductor Jordi Savall (whose recent set of Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-5 figures prominently in my “get those reviews finished, darn it!” pile). Pärt started writing it two days after the Madrid bombings in March 2004, and it has been performed commemoratively in Spain every year since. The stirring chords playing off against each other are like tolling bells, moving and memorable. The next piece, The Woman with the Alabaster Box, features more of a traditional choir sonority, rich in reverberation as captured by the engineers. Pärt has an admirable ability to employ stillness as an expressive tool  The soft descent into silence at the end of the piece is a marvel to behold.

Plainscapes by Vasks augments the sound of the choir with expressive support from violin and cello. The opening finds the choir joined by a high note from the violin, the violin then sliding into a haunting, almost spooky sound. At times, the two string instruments take the lead, spinning searching sounds that the choir supports and sustains with soft, tender accompaniment. There are no words, as the choir does not sing a text but rather employs vocalise throughout. Even without any sort of liturgical text, the net effect is nonetheless reverential.

Following the Vasks are two more pieces by Pärt, the choir once again singing a cappella. His setting of the Magnificat features rich harmonies weaving between male and female voices to create a reverential atmosphere capable of providing consolation and hope in these turbulent times for believers and nonbelievers alike. Oh, the healing power of great music! Nunc dimittis starts softly and slowly. As it proceeds, however, it builds in volume and intensity.

MacMillan’s Miserere seems to have a sound especially adapted to the acoustics and resonances of its physical setting. Simple vocal lines flow over each other, but are woven together in a more complex constitution than in the previous pieces in this program. The overall sound is larger, more complex—it is easy to imagine this as a work for orchestra. The ending is especially noteworthy for the way it winds down so skillfully and effectively.

The program closes with this recording’s longest (27:27) and most complex composition, Part's setting of the Stabat Mater. It opens with the strings alone, the choir not joining in for more than two minutes. And so the composition moves along, choir and chamber orchestra weaving in and out, intermingled with that silence so appropriate for his musical setting of a text that depicts the grief of Mary at Calvary.

All in all, this fine Harmonia Mundi CD, although with music rooted firmly in Christian liturgy, possesses musical and sonic excellence that can surely be appreciated by even the most secular of music lovers. Even if you already own recordings of some or even all of the Part compositions featured in this collection, the inclusion of the Vasks and MacMillan pieces, both of which are truly impressive, makes this release well worth seeking out. The engineering is excellent and the liner notes are useful. A first-class release in all respects.

Jake Runestad: Sing, Wearing the Sky. Includes The Secret of the Sea; Alleluia; Let My Love Be Heard; Sing, Wearing the Sky; Live the Questions; We Can Mend the Sky; Fear Not, Dear Friend; Proud Music of the Storm; I Will Lift Mine Eyes; Ner Ner. Joel Risema, Kantorei. Naxos 8.559892.

The Secret of the Sea
is the opening selection of this collection of choral music by Jake Runestad (b. 1986), a young American composer who was born in Illinois and now resides in Minnesota. It is an ambitious work that incorporates texts from Whitman, Longfellow, Doolittle, and Uvavnuk. It is hard to listen to the opening measures without thinking of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 1 (A Sea Symphony), not because Runestad is imitating RVW, but because the lyrics by Whitman and the exuberance of the music are similar in both pieces. The musical mood shifts as Runestad moves from text to text, but is always engaging and colorful, with the sound of the choir being accompanied by strings, percussion, and piano. The text for the next selection is much simpler, consisting entirely of one word, the tile of the piece, Alleluia. The performance by the unaccompanied singers is bursting with energy, culminating in a big finish. Also sung a cappella is the third selection on the program, Let My Love Be Heard, which the liner notes point out “became a powerful expression of collective grief and solidarity following terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut.” The choir director at Cal State Long Beach led a performance of the work as part of a memorial to a student of the college who had been killed in the Paris attacks, a performance that was posted online and has become music sung to provide solace and comfort for subsequent tragedies. It is a tender piece in which Runestad has framed the poem “A Prayer” by Alfred Noyes in rich harmonies that truly do provide balm for the soul.

The mood shifts once again for the title number, Sing, Wearing the Sky, with lyrics by Lalla, a 14th-century Sufi poet/mystic from India. From the cover art on the CD I had a kind of metaphorical, abstract preconception of what the title meant, but then I encountered the lines, “My teacher told me, live in the soul. When that was so, I began to go naked, and dance. Dance, Lalla, with nothing on but air. Sing, Lalla, wearing the sky.” That put a different spin on things… As the piece proceeds, a violin adds a distinctly Indian vibe to the sonority, with a mezzo-soprano voice telling the story accompanied by the choir as well as the violin, piano, and percussion. The net effect is dramatic, the listener really feeling the spirit of the dance. The next selection, Live the Questions, offers life advice of a different sort, with lyrics taken from a letter that Rilke wrote to a young cadet in the Austrian army who had sought Rilke’s advice on some life decisions he was facing. The musical setting has turned to the more serious side once again, with some tender harmonies culminating in a memorable final chord.

The next cut, We Can Mend the Sky, starts with a bang as drums accompany the chorus. As the lyrics (written by a 14-year-old Somali girl in response to violent riots she had witnessed in her homeland) unfold, a solo soprano sings the story with the choir accompanying her. There are some dramatic moments, but the earnest repetition  of the line, “if we come together, we can mend the sky” seems to be a bit over the top, a few too many overly earnest repetitions, at least for my taste. I hope I am not being too cynical (hey, 2020 has been a hard year for us all). In any event, the next selection, Fear Not, Dear Friend, from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, features rich harmonies that underscore the imploring loving tenderness of Stevenson’s touching words of support. The ending repeats the opening line, effectively bringing about a feeling of emotional resolution. The next selection, Proud Music of the Storm,  with lyrics by Walt Whitman, also seems to a kind of repetition, the overall sound and sense echoing the CD’s opening cut, The Secret of the Sea, the opening section of which also featured lyrics by that exuberant American poet. The opening notes are from the piano, and as the chorus joins in, there are shifting moods, breathing sounds, and the unfolding of the vison of an unfettered mind. The overall effect is grandiose, yet on a personal scale.

The penultimate composition, I Will Lift Mine Eyes, is Runestad’s setting of Psalm 121. Runestad explains that “I came across Psalm 121 from the Bible and found great beauty in the admiration for natural creation linked with a promise of guidance and support from a higher power. I find such peace in the splendor of the natural world and I wanted to capture that serenity with this work.” As you might expect, the music is reverential and stately, sung with depth and conviction by Kantorei. That serious mood disappears as the final selection begins, Ner Ner being a highly energetic and rhythmically resplendent rendition of nonsense syllables. A strange way to end the album, perhaps, but certainly a fun way.

Overall, Sing, Wearing the Sky is entertaining and enjoyable. The recording quality is certainly good, maybe not audiophile quality but never off-putting. There are times when I found myself wishing for less reverberation, but on the other hand, it does add to the sense of hearing singers in a public space rather than a studio setting. The liner notes are useful, with lyrics included,  This Naxos release is well worth an audition by fans of choral music.

Bonus Recommendation: Bruckner: Mass No. 3 in F minor. Margaret Price, soprano; Doris Soffel, alto; Peter Straka, tenor; Matthias Holle, bass; Philharmonischer Chor Munchen; Sergiu Celibidache, Munchner Philharmoniker (EMI 7243 5 56702 2 9)  In the category of choral music, here is something special. Music lovers whose familiarity with the music of Anton Bruckner is based solely upon hearing his symphonies may already have sensed a spirit of religiosity in his music. His symphonies have been described as “cathedrals in sound,” and movements such as the Adagio from his Symphony No. 8 are certainly capable of stimulating transcendent thoughts and feelings in listeners’ minds and hearts. But Bruckner was not just a symphonist, he also wrote music in other genres, including three Masses, of which this is the third. Conductor Sergiu Celibidache did not believe music should be recorded, so he did not leave a recorded legacy like so many other conductors. This EMI release is of a live concert, part of a series of live recordings that have been given special care to make his music more available to the public. It is music of great depth and beauty; oi deed, the structure of the Mass and its text meant that Bruckner did not write the repetitious melodies with the abrupt endings he employed in his symphonies. It is as if the very limitations  involved in setting the text to music are what freed him to compose some of his most beautiful music. This is an utterly wondrous release, well worth seeking out.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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