Stephen Paulus was a successful, prolific, and much-revered American composer acclaimed for his work in all the major genres, particularly opera, orchestral, and choral; his death last year (2014) at age 65 from complications of a stroke was noted and lamented around the world, and especially in the music community in Minnesota where he lived most of his life. Through his numerous commissions and relationships with major orchestras, choirs, conductors, and solo performers, his works have enjoyed extensive exposure in concert halls and on recordings.
The current program centers on a large work, Prayers and Remembrances, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 tragedy and premiered in September, 2011 by the performers on this recording, which was supervised by the composer. Rather than focusing on the actual 9/11 events, Paulus wisely sought in this work to honor the victims while addressing the universal experience of those grieving and healing from loss of loved ones–in his words, “a work that would be spiritual but not necessarily religious.”
Indeed, he accomplished that, with music that projects a concert-hall-scale grandeur (including some savvy orchestration) while embodying a style reminiscent of what can best be described as “20th-century English cathedral”. He also achieved his purpose with seven carefully chosen texts, including the poetry of Henry Vaughan, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, and prayers–a traditional Navajo prayer and the renowned “Lord, make me an instrument” by St. Francis of Assisi, a lovely setting that you easily could imagine as a stand-alone church anthem, especially if the orchestral accompaniment were transcribed for organ (similarly, the following “Music, when soft voices die” would work well by itself as a concert piece). Paulus’ engaging melodies and clearly defined textures confirm the composer’s effort to give primary attention to the texts.
The opening measures of I Have Called You By Name (text from Isaiah 43), are certainly among the more beautiful and moving of any modern a cappella choral piece–and there are many more moments of sumptuous and striking harmony and sheer command of expressive effects throughout this dramatic and substantial (7-minutes) little masterpiece. The opening minute of The Incomprehensible (2009), a setting of an Isaac Watts text with oboe and harp accompaniment, sounds as if lifted from some unknown Britten manuscript, but then assumes a more Paulus-like melodic/harmonic character, through to its bright, sonorous ending chord.
If there is a more perfect evocation of text, more ideally sung, than Paulus’ setting of the Elinor Wylie poem “Little Elegy”, I haven’t heard it; out of the whole program, this little piece will certainly be the one to prompt numerous returns to the replay button. Simple, poignant, and powerful, its lines (Withouten you/No rose can grow; No leaf be green/If never seen/Your sweetest face; No bird have grace/Or power to sing; Or anything/Be kind, or fair/And you nowhere.) capture the emotion that overwhelms the soul with the loss of one dearly loved.
For me, the disc should have ended there; but there is one more piece, When Music Sounds (text by Walter de la Mare), which is cut from the same musical cloth but is marred by a baritone solo near the end that’s not only way too loud but sounds as if recorded in a different acoustic and inserted after the fact. Oh, well. The choral singing is superb, as it is throughout this first-rate production, and in the accompanied selections the orchestra acquits itself equally well. True Concord Voices and its conductor Eric Holtan truly had a special relationship with Stephen Paulus and his music (the group commissioned both Prayers and Remembrances and The Incomprehensible), and one couldn’t ask for more authoritative, caring, or musically refined advocates. Anyone wishing to get to know–or to know better–this very fine and sorely missed composer should be sure not to miss this.