Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 8
The promotional blurb for this recording bills it as a “wide-ranging program”, and that’s certainly true; the only unifying theme might be that all the works are based on texts with Christian associations, ranging from the Latin liturgy to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to the Book of Common Prayer to a Russian Orthodox hymn. With the exception of Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo and perhaps Pierre Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge, the works on this disc (nine in all) are not commonly recorded, even if Holst’s Nunc dimittis, Vaughan Williams’ Valiant-for-Truth, and Henryk Górecki’s lovely Totus Tuus are familiar enough. Roxanna Panufnik’s All Shall Be Well (she’s the daughter of Andrzej Panufnik), which includes a significant part for solo cello, is a world-premiere.
Panufnik’s piece is certainly worthy of top billing. She combines two texts—a Polish plainsong hymn and “a passage from Julian of Norwich’s Divine Revelations” (from which the work’s title is taken)—into a moving and dramatic “conversation” between cello and choir that builds to an extended, powerful climax, similar in effect to the program’s concluding work, Knut Nystedt’s Stabat Mater, which also employs a cello as both a contrasting and complementary voice relative to the choir’s.
The weak link here is Tavener’s Svyati, from 1995, another work for choir and solo cello. Unlike, say Nystedt’s or Panufnik’s truly original musical conceptions, Tavener’s setting of The Trisagion is what any amateur composer might imagine a “mystical” prayer would sound like (as common in its way as the “scary” music in a B-level horror movie). Mess around with a couple of ancient modal scales, add a drone, drag the whole thing out slowly for 10 minutes or so, and voilà! Spiritual enlightenment! Unfortunately, it’s just dull, predictable, and formulaic.
On the other hand, the music on the rest of the disc will effectively cleanse the palate of any lingering Tavener aftertaste, and the impressive performances by the world-class Exultate Singers easily elevate even an inferior composition to a point of respectable listenability. The Panufnik, Holst, Górecki, and Nystedt performances are especially noteworthy both for the music and the singing, yet the entire program is certain to appeal to any listener interested in 20th-century choral music. My only caution regards the sound, which gives a strangely larger-than-life quality to the cello and a cavernous resonance to the choir. You get used to it, but it’s a bit unsettling at first.
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Recording Details:Album Title: All Shall Be Well
Choral works by R. Panufnik, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Tavener, Górecki, Mäntyjarvi, Villette, & Nystedt