Daniel Elder’s Definitely Excellent Choral Music

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

Even if you’re a choral music fan you may not be familiar with composer Daniel Elder. But you definitely should be. On evidence of this first-rate recording, featuring expert performances by the Westminster Choir, Elder has a command of the choral idiom that defies simple categorization: he can go mano a mano with the best of the post-millennial nouveau-gardists, but he’s also not afraid to devote his considerable talent to creating the kind of immediately ingratiating melody-centered, harmony-gilded works that no choir director or singer—or listener—can resist.

The former type includes the opening O Magnum Mysterium, a remarkably affecting swirling, splashing of choral colors, assertive melodic turns, and dramatic expressive utterances not usually associated with this revered and oft-set text; the latter variety is distinguished by the heart-and soul-gripping Ballade to the Moon, Star Sonnet, and Lullaby, with texts by the composer: “On moonlit night I wander free, my mind to roam on thoughts of thee. With midnight darkness beckoning my heart toward mystic fantasy: Come, dream in me!”; or, “In stillness high above the slumbering shore/where wistful waves of foam caress the sand; A silent watchman o’er the darkened land/adrift celestial seas of twilight soars.”; or this, “Lullaby, sing lullaby, the day is far behind you. The moon sits high atop the sky, now let sweet slumber find you. Away.” A touch of Rutter here, of Lauridsen there, but mostly just Elder and his sure sense of choral sound and the way of singers.

Then there are pieces that lie somewhere outside either of these borders. Elegy—”Day is done, gone the sun…”—is a sort of cross between Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre, but infused with Elder’s particular explicative technique, ultimately focusing our attention on some charming little upswinging, delightfully captivating phrase endings. In spite of any cursory comparisons with other composers’ styles, Elder proves both a resourceful student and a canny inventor. My only reservation concerns his decision to use some rather heavy percussion in the set titled Three Themes of Life and Love (to texts by 13th-century Persian poet Rumi). Perhaps this works better in concert, but on this recording the drums (and occasional cymbals) mostly seem a gratuitous intrusion in these otherwise perfectly conceived and constructed works. I say “mostly” because in the set’s third number, Drumsound Rises, the percussion effectively enhances the rhythmic character of the piece.

The disc’s title work, The Heart’s Reflection, is a beautiful piece full of rich textures and full-bodied, vibrant harmonies, and, yes, even a couple of Whitacre-esque licks. The text is a paraphrase by the composer of Proverbs 27:19: “See the waterfront shine forth resplendent; So the heart of humanity to all the earth reflects.” In the several works with piano, Elder proves he also is an expert at creating accompaniments that are both necessary and supportive of the choral parts—not as easy to do as some composers seem to believe. He’s even adept at turning a nursery-tune like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” into a delightful, encore-worthy gem.

Of course, Elder is fortunate here to have such a fine advocate as the Westminster Choir; the singing is everything a choral composer could hope for, including that often elusive component: it’s obviously well rehearsed. In addition, it’s informed with a feel for the important textural clarity that this music requires, benefiting not a little from the splendidly matched and carefully balanced voices and sections. The recording also benefits from having been made at two of the premiere concert/recording venues in the northeast U.S.: Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass. (Seven Last Words from the Cross) and Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York (the rest of the program). Highly recommended.

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Recording Details:

    O Magnum Mysterium; Elegy; In Your Light; A Breathing Peace; Drumsound Rises; The Heart's Reflection; Ballade to the Moon; Star Sonnet; Lullaby; Seven Last Words from the Cross; Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

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