Wednesday 18 April 2018

William Billings to contemporary Icelandic & Finnish music: Skylark's Seven Words on the Cross

Skylark - Seven words from the cross - Sono Luminus
William Billings, Frederick Buckley, Hildegard of Bingen, John Sheppard, Francis Poulenc, Hugo Distler, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 April 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
An unusual thematic programme bringing together an eclectic programme, finely sung

Skylark, artistic director Matthew Guard, is an American vocal ensemble and on this new disc from Sono Luminus, Seven words from the Cross, they present an eclectic programme themed around Christ's seven words from the cross. The music on the disc ranges widely, from African-American spirituals, William Billings, Frederick Buckley and traditional hymns, to Hildegard of Bingen, John Sheppard, Hugo Distler, Francis Poulenc, Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Anna Sigríður Þorvaldsdóttir) and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.

The programme is in nine sections, arranged around the seven words (in fact phrases) with a prologue and epilogue, with each section having a selection of pieces around the theme. The selection is quite eclectic so that for Behold your son: behold your mother we have Charity abounds toward all by Hildegard of Bingen, Break it Gently to my Mother by Frederick Buckley (1833-1864) and David's Lamentation by William Billings (1746-1800).

The 18th century American composer William Billings is a notable presence on the disc with four pieces, When Jesus Wept, There is land of pure delight (Jordan), David's Lamentation and In deep distress I oft have cried (Plympton) along with Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Death may dissolve (fantasia on a hymn by William Billings), and Billings' wonderfully idiosyncratic and robustly characterful music colours the programme, particularly when combined with the use of two traditional hymns Amazing Grace (New Britain) and Wondrous Love, and Frederick Buckley's 19th century ballad give the programme a very particular and rather distinctively American feel.

Hugo Distler's 1935 motet Ich wollt, dss ich daheime war is beautifully elegant and rather powerful, whilst the Hildegard of Bingen sung by just one voice (soprano Clare McNamara) makes a wonderful contrast.

Francis Poulenc's Vinea mea electa from the Lenten motets comes as something of a shock, its timbres and textures in strong contrast to the nine pieces which precede it. In fact, this is one of the problems with the programme's eclecticism, the first five pieces on the disc are all from the Billings/ traditional hymn/spiritual axis which seems to determine how we view the remainder of the programe. That said, the Poulenc is beautifully done, and it is shame that the group could not have found a way to record all four of the motets.

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir's On the holy cross of our Lord takes us into another aural world. Thorvaldsdottir bases her piece on an ancient Icelandic psalm with a tune first published in 1589. Thorvaldsdottir creates an intense meditation, setting the tune against a sustained background that almost has a character of its own. The use of the 16th century melody, albeit from a different continent, does rather link the piece to the first half of the programme in a rather striking way. This atmosphere continues with Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's 2002 piece Death may dissolve (fantasia on a hymn by William Billings), where Jaakko Mäntyjärvi takes William Billings' hymn and around it creates an imaginative de-construction, preserving the vigour of Billings' original but filtering it through a distinctively 21st century voice.

The disc finishes with the pairing of a complex and contemporary arrangement of the spiritual Deep River with John Sheppard's In manus tuas, and ends with another hymn Just as I am. Like the Poulenc, the Sheppard does rather stand out as it takes us into a different vocal world, one not explored elsewhere in the programme.

The choir (18 voices) gives a lovely performance, committed and engaging with a nice clarity of tone and a clear, direct sound which makes the programme a pleasure to listen to. Finely recorded with a nice bloom to the sound, the disc comes in two formats ordinary audio and Pure-Audio Blue Ray (though the two discs are insufficiently differentiated, much to the confusion of my CD player)

If the music of William Billings and traditional American hymns do not appeal to you, then this programme might not either. But the rationale with its thematic, rather than musical links is certainly imaginative and intriguing and results in some pairings which might not always feel obvious.

Traditional African-American spiritual - Were you there?
William Billings (1746-1800) - When Jesus wept
Traditional hymn - Amazing Grace (New Britain)
Traditional hymn - Wondrous Love
William Billings - There is a land of pure delight (Jordan)
Hugo Distler (1908-1942) - Ich wollt, dass ich daheime war
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) - Karitas Abundat
Frederick Buckley (1833-1864) - Break it gently to your mother
William Billings - David's Lamentation
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Vinea mea electa
William Billings - In deep distress I oft have cried (Plymton)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Þann heilaga kross
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi - Death may dissolve (fantasia on a hymn by William Billings)
Traditional African-American spiritual - Deep River
John Sheppard (1515-1558) - In manus tuas
Traditional hymn - Just as I am
Matthew Guard (artistic director)
Recorded at the church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, MA, 21-24 June 2017
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92219 1CD [48:52]
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Missa Tulerunt Dominum Meum: Siglo de Oro (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Returning home: Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Oper Leipzig (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Sacred and Profane: The Sixteen's 2018 Choral Pilgrimage opens at St Albans Cathedral (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Light Divine: a final glimpse of treble Aksel Rykkvin (★★★½) - CD review
  • David Hare's The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York's Theatre (★★★★)  - theatre review
  • Handel's Teseo at the London Handel Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto from Early Opera Company at London Handel Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Concrete Dreams (★★★★)  - exhibition review
  • Britten, Bernstein, Moore, Sutherland, Chagall, Piper - Walter Hussey & his commissions (★★★★)  - Book review
  • Shedding light on Claude le Jeune's psalm settings (★★★½) - CD review
  • Journey to Nidaros: Alexander Chapman Campbell (★★★) - CD review
  • Fantasies can be dangerous: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (★★★) - opera review
  • Competitive edge: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris and arias from Handel's Semele  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Labour of love: a new musical direction at Finchcocks - interview
  • Home

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