Don't be surprised if you have to stop and repeat the first two tracks of this musically compelling, beautifully sung program of works--most of them written during the past 10 years--by British composer Gabriel Jackson. To Morning (2007) and Song (I gaze upon you), from 1996, are the kinds of choral pieces that immediately sound with a vibrancy and freshness sprung from what can only be the composer's genuine affinity for his texts and subject. The former is a ravishingly eloquent William Blake poem that begins "O holy virgin! clad in purest white, Unlock heav'n's golden gates, and issue forth;" the latter is a love poem by Paul Éluard, translated into English by Gilbert Bowen and set to music as a wedding gift for friendsRead more of the composer. (Choral directors, to save you the trouble, you'll find both of these works published by Oxford.)
Of course, there's much more here to enjoy--and a few pieces that are more "interesting" and "challenging" than purely "enjoyable"!--and if you have never before become acquainted with Jackson's music, this is the perfect place to start. While at times you may be reminded of Eric Whitacre or Morten Lauridsen or even Herbert Howells (Polyphony also has recorded acclaimed discs of Whitacre and Lauridsen, reviewed at Classicstoday.com), Jackson clearly has a voice that's his own but that's not able to be pegged to a particular technique or signature stylistic character. Many composers claim that their music arises from and is inspired by the text, but in Jackson's works you believe it's true: these texts, which vary from the abovementioned Blake and Éluard to liturgical responds, antiphons, and hymns, are treated to both dense and expansive textures, fine-grained dissonances, open-throated consonant declamations, and extended passages of both unrestrained exuberance and quiet contemplation.
Jackson is not afraid to begin a piece with a loud, out-of-nowhere outburst--Orbis patrator optime; Lux mortuorum--nor is he concerned with modern compositional conventions or pretentions. "I try to write music that is clean and clear in line, texture, and structure," he says; "my pieces are made of simple melodies, chords, drones, and ostinatos. They are not about conflict and resolution." Indeed, as you plainly hear, these works convey much of what Jackson refers to as the "ecstatic quality" in Tippett's scores, or in Stravinsky, "the use of block structures, without development or transitions."
Simply put, if you love choral music, you will find Jackson's honest, affecting works a pleasing, immediately accessible, refreshing alternative to the pretentiousness (John Tavener, anyone?) that defines the efforts of several inferior but well-marketed modern composers; and you will be very pleased with these performances, by one of today's finest choral ensembles, a group that is doing for modern composers what, for instance, the Tallis Scholars have done for early composers such as Gombert, Sheppard, and Cornysh. Once you've heard Polyphony's performances of these Jackson works, you'll certainly be primed to hear more (just listen to the lovely ending of the Ave Maria, with those sublime soprano soloists!). Stephen Johnson's liner notes are thorough and thoughtfully written for listeners new to this music, and the sound is near-ideal, except in the very loudest passages, where the church acoustic seems to swallow ensemble detail and harden the otherwise very agreeable treble quality. This is a disc that every choral music lover should own--and one that should appear on any list of best choral recordings of the year.