Saturday, April 02, 2016

Skylark's Liminal Journey

The world of contemporary classical music, like all music, is full of niches. But it may not get more niche than an album of recent choral music around the theme of "the dream state at the end of life." But that is indeed what the vocal ensemble Skylark has delivered with Crossing Over, their new release on Sono Luminus. Having recently watched a great friend succumb to pancreatic cancer, I was actually completely uninterested, even resistant, to listening to anything that purported to describe what he had gone through. I also wasn't sure that anything other than tuneless primal screaming could express how I felt about the situation. 

But listen I did and found that I had been taking Skylark's concept a bit too literally. Crossing Over is, in fact, a superbly sung and brilliantly sequenced album that makes you think about death about as much as listening to Mozart's Requiem makes you think about death. It's in there, for sure, but despite the booklet's heavy handed subtitles (Denial, My time has come, etc.) there need be no utility to the collection. Overall, it is a meditative and elevating listening experience, with the rich, warm recording seeming to surround you with the perfectly balanced voices of the ensemble.

The composers chosen by Skylark's leader Matthew Guard range from those firmly established in the 20th century canon, like John Tavener and William Schuman, to younger musicians like Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daniel Elder. It's Elder's Elegy that opens the album with a beautiful evocation of Taps emerging from a cloud of voices. By Elder's hand the overly familiar melody is imbued with a new gravity that may surprise you. 

Tavener is of course the composer Paul McCartney picked to lend a little weight to the releases on The Beatles' Apple Label, which put out his The Whale in 1970. Featured here is Butterfly Dreams from 2003, a short eight-part piece that explores a variety of moods, even touching on the primal scream in No. 6. The Butterfly: My Most Horrifying Nightmare. This is a small but important part of Tavener's legacy and we owe a debt of gratitude to Skylark for this definitive rendering of a rarely performed piece. 

Heyr bú oss himnum á, Thorvaldsdottir's setting of an Icelandic psalm with the key line "We cannot make a joyful song unless we are moved by love," is somber but shot through with shafts of light. I wasn't looking for further proof of her versatility but I'm glad to have it nonetheless. The longest work on Crossing Over is the world-premiere recording of Robert Vuichard's Heliocentric Meditation, which uses text from John Donne's Meditation XVII ("ask not for whom the bell tolls..."). It has some of Donne's solidity to it's structure and covers a variety of emotions from sorrow to raging against the dying of the light. It may never be performed by a glee club, as have some of Vuichard's other compositions, but it is a valuable addition to the contemporary choral catalog, which goes for the album as a whole.

Don't be scared off by the concept - give Crossing Over a chance. If you love the sound of the human voice you will find it a deeply rewarding journey.

Another recent release from Sono Luminus is not quite so satisfying. Everyone knows that a joke that must be explained is not a joke at all and there is a lot of explaining going on in the liner notes to Serious Business by the Spektral Quartet. The idea is to "look at humor" from different musical angles but the results are not always something you want to hear more than once. Many, Many Cadences by Sky Macklay opens the album and drives its point home with a repetition that seems unnecessary rather than clever. David Remnick's The Ancestral Mousetrap has the virtuoso instrumentalists singing in addition to playing, which might amuse in concert but not in my living room.

Hack by Chris Fisher-Lochhead closes the album with many, many (22) short "transcriptions" of comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Tig Notaro. It may be that you had to be there but these just seem like unfocused fragments. There's nothing terribly wrong with it, musically speaking, but there's not enough to engage me either. 

However, there is one saving grace on Serious Business, and that is the Spektral's absolutely masterful performance of Haydn's String Quartet Opus 33, No. 2 in E-flat major, "The Joke." I'm usually the one saying "Do we really need another recording of this?" when it comes to pieces from the classical era but in this case the answer is resounding YES. The recording is pure perfection and the quartet never oversells Haydn's melodies, with playing that reflects the elegance of the period so exactly that listening feels like time travel. The famous tease of the multiple endings still kills, too. Humor that stands the test of 200-plus years? Now, that's serious business.

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