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XL. Choral Works
18 Oct 2005

XL—Œuvres pour grand chœur

The “XL” of the title of this recording is, as the program book notes, a double reference. First, read as Roman numerals, it points to the extraordinary number of voice parts in Thomas Tallis’ famous “Spem in alium” and its modern analogue here, Antony Pitts’ “XL,” a forty-voice setting of text from Psalm 40.

XL. Choral Works

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey, Dir.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 801873 [CD]


Second, read in merchandizing code, the “XL” also points to “extra large,” the size of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, whose sixty some voices certainly exceed Renaissance norms and also the norms of many ensembles performing modern music. Happily, I would suggest a third reference, as well, and that is that “XL” is also emblematic of the excellence of the program and much of its execution.

Conductor Simon Halsey’s theme here is a tightly constructed one: he has compellingly mated pre-modern works with contemporary compositions that in some fashion transform them, and the cumulative effect is stunning. While savoring the familiarity of long-established pillars in the repertory—the Tallis “Spem in alium,” Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” the first Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of Fugue, Bach’s chorale, “Komm, süsser Tod, and the chant “Veni, creator spiritus”—one marvels at the transformations by Dieter Schnebel, Jonathan Harvey, Knut Nystedt, Sven-David Sandström, and Antony Pitts. And the ebb and flow between old and new creates a gratifying rhythm as the program unfolds.

The transformations are of varied sorts. Schnebel, for instance, arranges the Bach Contrapunctus in a verbatim manner: all of the notes are there in their original sequence, but by dividing the notes between various vocal lines and varying the singers’ vowel configurations, he re-contextualizes the work in a way that gives it a decidedly new and spatial dimension. Harvey and Nystedt, by contrast, create soundscapes with haunting harmonies, aleatoric and undulating effects, that set the sound ashimmer and provide a decidedly new envelope in which to place the pre-existent material (“Veni, Creator” and “Komm süsser Tod”). Sandström adopts more the technique of paraphrase, developing themes and contours from Purcell’s emotionally charged orginal. And Pitts carves out a relation with “Spem in alium” in a way that evokes and salutes the original without, however, taking on elements of its specific content.

Oddly thrown into the mix, as well is Kodaly’s Laudes Organi, a large-scale work, whose connection to the programmatic theme is decidedly looser—its text is a twelfth-century hymn in praise of the organ and Guido of Arezzo. Thus, while it can claim ties to an earlier epoch, they are largely verbal, not musical. Moreover, Kodaly’s compositional language is of a decidedly conservative bent, which further separates the work from the more markedly modern idioms of the other composers.

The performances are accomplished and highly polished. The choir’s sound is reedy and sinewy in the older pieces, which serves them well, although close placement of the microphones gives a solo cast to some of the works—the Tallis in particular—that undermines what one suspects would be a satisfying ensemble cohesion heard in the hall. The newer pieces find the choir much at home, dynamically alive to the range of effects and techniques, and unflaggingly expressive in their rendition.

We have long admired the sixteenth century’s propensity and ability to adapt pre-existent material to new ends, heard in the large quantities of parody and paraphrase masses that characterize the late Renaissance. In “XL,” we see that a kindred spirit is alive in our own day, as well, with results that engage and satisfy in moving ways, indeed.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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