Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble bring a truly wonderful disc of choral works from composers as diverse as John Tavener, William Schuman and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir for Sono Luminus

A new release from Sono Luminus entitled Crossing Over features the Skylark Vocal Ensemble in compositions that depict the dream state at the end of life. These choral compositions are from around the world and include several world premiere recordings.

CD and Blu-ray Audio

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble is a chamber choir of professional soloists and music educators from across the United States. Formed in 2011 under the direction of Matthew Guard, Skylark performs innovative programmes that help reinforce the intent of the composers to communicate truths about the human condition. A not-for-profit entity, Skylark also performs educational outreach programs with students across the United States during their concert tours.

Daniel Elder’s (b. 1986)  Elegy was inspired by the taps bugle call, played traditionally in the military to signal lights out at the end of the day and now played at military memorials, symbolizing poignantly the closing of the last of days. The Skylark Vocal Ensemble bring some quite lovely harmonies out of which soloists rise up bringing the most exquisitely shaped phrases before the choir lead us to a beautifully hushed coda. This is a remarkably lovely piece.

John Tavener’s (1944- 2013)  Butterfly Dreams is an eight movement dream-state piece composed in 2003 setting a variety of texts. It opens with the title piece Butterfly Dreams based on texts by Chuang Tse, weaving some lovely long lines with beautiful harmonies and subtly shifting harmonies.  

Haiku by Kokku brings more of Tavener’s distinctive subtly shifting harmonies before Haiku by Buson where this choir achieves a lovely balance between upper female voices and the lower layer of choral sound in this fine piece. Haiku by Issa is a faster piece that consists of a series of four repeated sequences that quickly build to a climax, each one adding a subtle increase in textures and power. Very finely sung. Haiku anon is very brief but finds a quite gentle calm, beautifully sung. The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann rises up suddenly, full of alarm, this choir achieving a fine, brightly toned texture. It falls back briefly before rising up again, juxtaposing a calmer nature against its more anxious nature. Butterfly Song from Acoman Indian finds a repose as the music gently, slowly and thoughtfully moves forward. Finally Butterfly Dreams based on Chuang Tse brings back more of Tavener’s glorious textures and sonorities, always gentle and subtly shifting, perfectly caught by this terrific choir.

The Russian composer of liturgical music, Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940) is best known for his setting of Otche Nash. Sung in Russian this choir bring beautifully controlled tempo and dynamics to this gentle setting of the Lord’s Prayer as well as the most lovely sonorities with some fine bass voices at the end. This is a real treasure.

Jón Leifs (1899-1968), was an Icelandic composer, pianist and conductor whose music has recently gained more popularity due to a number of recordings by BIS Records. He spent much of his life in Germany but returned home in 1945, leaving his wife and daughters in Sweden. It was after this move that Leifs’ younger daughter Líf drowned in a swimming accident off the coast of Sweden in 1947. His grief led to the composition of a number of works including his Requiem that sets texts from Icelandic poetry and Magnusarkvioa by Jonas Hallgrimson.

This brief work, sung in Icelandic, has a chant like, slow rhythmic pulse with quite lovely sonorities. There is a finely felt sense of urgent grief in the little dynamic rises to each line and some very fine choral lines over a sustained choral base. This is a quite stunning work, wonderfully sung.

American composer, Robert Vuichard has set poems by John Donne for his Heliocentric Meditation. Female voices open with some fine textures added to by the male voices. There are some lovely dissonances as well as some superb part writing here. The piece subtly increases in dynamics with varied rhythms as the music progresses. There are lovely little surges of voices through fine harmonies with finely shaped passages of rising phrases. This superb choir achieves some spectacularly fine dissonant sonorities with a finely controlled climax toward the calm coda that brings the words ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’

William Schuman (1910-1992) set texts by Walt Whitman for his 1958 work for mixed chorus, Carols of Death. There is a finely phrased opening to The Last Invocation as this choir finds its way quite wonderfully through Schuman’s shifting harmonies and varied dynamics. The Unknown Region brings some remarkable ideas as repeated phrases build up a terrific choral texture with this choir bringing the most superb control, finding all the drama. To All, to Each opens on the repeated word ‘come’ before moving forward, weaving some lovely passages with some glorious sonorities in the coda.

The Icelandic composer, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir is building a fine reputation with her striking compositions. Heyr þú oss himnum á, written in 2005, sets an ancient Icelandic psalm and further indicates what a very fine, gifted composer she is. There are the most lovely harmonies as this setting gently moves forward, subtly gaining in passion, gently rising and falling through the most beautiful passages, so very finely sung by this choir.

Skylark conclude with another work by John Tavener, his Funeral Ikos. It is wonderful how Tavener conjures a great feeling of tradition whilst adding his own distinctive devices. This choir find all the many beauties of this setting, with finely judged tempi and dynamics and lovely harmonies.

It is this choir’s wonderful control and shaping of phrases, as well as its fine sonorities that adds so much to these performances. They receive a first rate recording given the extra presence and depth in the Blu-ray version.

There are very brief booklet notes. Not all texts are given but there are texts for all those works not sung in English. The booklet is beautifully illustrated. 

This is a truly wonderful disc of choral works. 

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