Whitacre: Choral works/Elora Festival Singers

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Eric Whitacre’s choral works have been generously surveyed on disc, but only a handful of choirs have yet devoted an entire recording to his music. He couldn’t have more luminous or illuminating interpreters than the Elora Festival Singers, a choir that I’ve heartily praised in the past and that deserves the same recognition here. Although there is much duplication, this program makes a fine companion to the 2005 recording by Polyphony (Hyperion) that I previously recommended.

Missing from the Hyperion disc but included among the 11 selections here is the rarely recorded “little tree”, a sparkling, brightly sonorous setting with piano of e.e. cummings’ sweetly childlike Christmas poem that contains a couple of musical quotes from what could be the song Gesu Bambino (or perhaps the Sussex carol?) and ends with spectacular multiple bursts of dazzling Whitacre-esque harmony. Also found here but not on the Hyperion recording (which incidentally features more selections altogether–14) are Little Birds, a setting of a poem by Octavio Paz–also with piano and containing some striking, non-sung vocal sounds!, and the wild and fascinating (also rarely recorded) Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, an imaginative scenario with text by C.A. Silvestri.

The rest of the disc is filled with first-rate performances of Whitacre’s most popular works, from A Boy and a Girl and Water Night to Lux aurumque and Sleep. Although not mentioned in the notes, the music for this last piece originally was written to the famous Robert Frost poem, Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, but had to be radically revised when the Frost Estate inexplicably refused to grant permission for a musical setting (in spite of numerous existing ones!). Whitacre and his poetic collaborator ingeniously solved the problem (although the Frost poem still fits neatly into the musical framework) and in the process created one of the composer’s best-loved and most evocative works.

And speaking of liner notes, they focus almost exclusively on trying to explain Whitacre’s compositional style, discussing in a somewhat technical fashion intervals and harmonic relationships, polychords, subdominants, mediant triads, etc. While some listeners will certainly appreciate this analytical detail, I believe most would have preferred to simply have the texts (which are not included!) and some information on the origin of the pieces and the relationships between the music and the poetry. Not having the texts at hand for a program of vocal or choral music is a significant drawback and detracts from full enjoyment of the listening experience.

Although I haven’t changed my mind about the “too-long-for-its-material” handicap of the 13-minute When David Heard, the setting of e.e. cummings’ “i thank you God for most this amazing day” is truly a masterpiece of choral writing and of musical embodiment of the tone and meaning of the poetry. And the Elora singers certainly “get it”, as they do all the rest of the music on the program. The sound, from the choir’s home venue in Elora, Ontario, exemplifies the consistently fine efforts of engineer Norbert Kraft and producer Bonnie Silver. Highly recommended. [5/28/2010]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Polyphony (Hyperion)

ERIC WHITACRE - Her Sacred Spirit Soars; A Boy and a Girl; Water Night; This Marriage; Lux aurumque (Light of Gold); little tree; When David Heard; Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine; i thank you God for most this amazing day; Sleep; Little Birds

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