In fact, the exacting singing of Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton, gives the world a better sense of Whitacre’s music than many American performances.
Most of Whitacre’s music can be described as tone poems. He paints with sound, moving to specific chords at just the precise moment to evoke the spirituality and sensuousness within the text. While words may not be set to specific colors, the overall sound and direction of the piece rely on a deep understanding of the poetry. Whitacre builds dense textures of sound that ebb and flow. He uses large cluster chords as structural pillars that develop from a sparse texture to a layered wall of sound.
With Polyphony’s accurate intonation, the clusters and clouds of sound shimmer with clarity. The music’s billowing and unique color shifts waft and settle in the ensemble’s perfect evenness of tone. Additionally, having been recorded in a large reverberant church, the music’s spaciousness is allowed to unfold into the air. Luckily, the words, the inspiration for such tone painting, are not lost in the dense texture because of the group’s crisp, clean diction.
While an entire compact disc of Eric Whitacre may seem monochromatic at times, Layton’s arrangement of the selections provides the greatest possible variety between the music’s emotional and spiritual centers. He precedes and follows many of the weightier works with lighter, simple pieces. The trauma, torment, and massive grief expressed in When David Heard are preceded by the elegantly simple Go, Lovely Rose, which conveys the opening of a flower. The disc’s title piece, Cloudburst, is arguably the most virtuosic and interesting selection. Polyphony’s incisive singing wonderfully evokes the many senses and sounds of a cloud bubbling with pressure and rupturing into rainfall.
When it comes to American choral music, sometimes there can be much to learn by allowing others to wrestle with it. The English sound and the Whitacre sonic universe form a happy union on this CD. The flawless intonation and clear, selfless tone quality of Polyphony, under their director Stephen Layton, bring a profound clarity and light to the dense flowing tonality of Eric Whitacre’s choral music.