A Winner from Whitbourn and Westminster

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

There’s neither a shortage of works nor lack of variety of new choral music these days. But much of it—especially what tends to be offered by several of the bigger-name commissioned composers—at best exhibits a technical sophistication and/or conceptual scope beyond the performing abilities of even some of the better choirs,  and demanding the fiercest devotion by even experienced listeners just to get through it, and at worst, it’s pretentious, gimmicky, and predictable, born of laziness and complete lack of original ideas. The music of British composer James Whitbourn is none of these things; instead, here is music that accomplished choirs can sing, that you don’t have to be an avant-gardeist listener to pretend to enjoy, and thus, in the grand scheme of choral music, gives singers something to anticipate and savor, and listeners much to celebrate.

The saxophone, as an addition to a sacred choral work, can be an enhancement, a complementary voice, or a major distraction. We’ve heard this sort of thing before, sort of, with the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, in very successful, experimental recording projects for ECM such as Officium and Mnemosyne. But those efforts centered largely on existing early music works and improvised saxophone solos. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, the major piece on this program, is a relatively new work (2001) composed for choir, soprano saxophone, and organ. And it’s a gem, a masterpiece, a work that compels you to listen in a new way, to appreciate the saxophone sound as an integral part of the work’s structure and expressive frame. In Whitbourn’s creative hands, and in Jeremy Powell’s sensitive, sensuous realizations, it is a most compelling, wordless soloist, sometimes pleading, prayerful, contemplative, mysterious, moody,  sometimes soaring, exuberant. Each movement is exceptionally well conceived to suit the mood and meaning of the texts; the final Amen is a marvelous, climactic utterance.

The chorus, one of the leading ensembles at Westminster Choir College, has premiered several Whitbourn pieces, including another major work on this recording, the Requiem canticorum (2010), and not surprisingly, there’s nothing to fault here. The music thrives on the warm, resonant timbre of these 40 well-trained voices  and benefits from ensemble balances carefully tuned to texture and to the acoustic of the Princeton University Chapel.

While Whitbourn shows no lack of originality or facility in effectively integrating voices and saxophone in the Mass and Requiem, at times, especially in the Mass, you can’t help but be reminded of Arvo Pärt’s similar explorations and evocations using choir and solo instruments; in another context, the beautiful anthem Give us the wings of faith (another world-premiere recording) exhibits a certain Rutter-esque attire–definitely not a bad thing, unless you hate getting a tune stuck in your head for days!

The rest of the works on the program, all of which are premiere recordings, vary from significant and absorbing (Winter’s Wait; A brief story of Peter Abelard) to suitably functional (A Prayer from South Africa; All shall be Amen and Alleluia). All are well worth hearing—and repeating. Highly recommended.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

    Son of God Mass (2001); Winter's Wait (2010); Give us the wings of faith (2002); A brief story of Peter Abelard (2006/2011); A Prayer from South Africa (2009); Living Voices (2001); Requiem canticorum (2010); All shall be Amen and Alleluia (2009)

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