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Life And Breath: Choral Works By Rene Clausen

Clausen / Kansas City Chorale / Bruffy
Release Date: 06/26/2012 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 5105   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  René Clausen
Performer:  Sarah TannehillMatthew GladdenPamela WilliamsonRebecca Lloyd,   ... 
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A disc to offer balm and great beauty in equal measure.
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CLAUSEN All That Hath Life and Breath, Praise Ye the Lord. O magnum mysterium. The Tyger. The Lamb . Mass for Double Choir. Magnificat. Prayer. O vos omnes. A New Creation: Set me a seal Charles Bruffy, cond; Kansas City Chorale CHANDOS 5105 (SACD 62:25) Read more

René Clausen has been the director of the famed Concordia Choir of Concordia College in Morehead, Minnesota, for more than 25 years. He is best known to the public as the artistic director of the annually broadcast Concordia Christmas concerts, and in choral circles as an outstanding teacher and conductor. He is also a popular composer, writing for his own ensembles as well as on commissions from other choral organizations. Despite this, I had until recently steered clear of Clausen’s compositions, as early contacts had left me with an impression of a technically accomplished but prosaic prettiness that I do not find particularly interesting. However, Eternal Rest , the second disc that Charles Bruffy and his chorales recorded for Chandos, includes a performance of Clausen’s In pace that suggested I might be missing something. And indeed I have been; a number of the works included on this SACD, Life and Breath , exhibit a compelling harmonic and contrapuntal sophistication, reminiscent of the music of Eric Whitacre, though with less insistent (and ecstatic) dissonances.


The centerpiece of the release is Clausen’s Mass for Double Choir, written in 2011for Bruffy and his two chorales in Kansas City and Phoenix. It is here recorded by an augmented Kansas City Chorale, boasting 31 rather than the usual 24 singers. I suspect that this Mass, the composer’s first, may have been inspired by the Frank Martin masterpiece. If it was, Clausen quickly found his own way, creating a distinctive setting of rich but subtle coloration and great depth of feeling. There are few antiphonal effects for a work ostensibly for double chorus, but the text—or most of it, as Clausen has made some odd, assumedly musically dictated, word and phrase excisions—has been set with skill, clarity, economy, and more than a little imagination. The Mass is the most challenging and substantial work on the program, but other recent pieces like the restlessly inward O magnum mysterium and the Prayer on a text by Mother Theresa—achingly beautiful but never mawkish—further demonstrate the composer’s expressive growth.


There are a few quibbles. The clever Blake settings, The Tyger and The Lamb , provide welcome contrast to the liturgical works, but Clausen never really invites us below the surface of Blake’s vision into either the darkness or the wonder. A couple of the earliest works include quotes of Lutheran chorales, which, while imaginatively done, now seem a little passé. Finally, “Set Me a Seal” from Clausen’s 1989 cantata A New Creation sails dangerously close to the shoals of preciousness. It is, however, his most popular work, so its inclusion is inevitable, and it serves reasonably well as an encore/benediction to the program that precedes it.


The Kansas City Chorale—in conjunction with its sister group, which actually got the first release—is the first American chorus to record with English label Chandos. It is not hard to hear why it was accorded this honor. It offers some of the finest a cappella singing to be heard on disc, on a par with the best of Great Britain’s vaunted choruses, and is Chandos’s answer to Hyperion’s similarly thrilling Polyphony. Tuning is impeccable, and blend is faultless, though I might have liked an additional bass in the balance. Diction is clear and tone varies easily by mood, though projection is slightly restrained, as is Bruffy’s way. The sound and artistry are exemplary. Many a soprano section I’ve heard on disc lately could take a lesson from this choir’s superb singers on how to negotiate leaping high notes. Chandos engineers have provided just enough distance and resonance to support blend while maintaining clarity, and in surround the choir is placed out in a believable space. To anyone who enjoys beautifully crafted, thought-provoking but accessible choral music, this release is most highly recommended.


FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


Discovering the Kansas City Chorale under their inspirational director Charles Bruffy a few years back reviewing a disc for this site was something of a Damascene moment for me. Since then I have to say that I have sought out their discs whenever possible and I continue to be stunned by the sheer beauty and unanimity of their singing. Given that and my predilection for unfamiliar repertoire and this disc was eagerly awaited.

Composer René Clausen was a name completely unknown to me. The liner describes him as; “one of America’s most popular choral composers, creating music that is suited to all levels of ability and expertise”. Needless to say the level of expertise here is supremely high to the certain benefit of the music. Away from composing Clausen has spent most of his working life as an educator and again the liner quotes him as feeling he has a “pedagogical responsibility to the audience” by being “a conduit between serious music and the public”. This translates into music of instant appeal with nothing that is going to challenge a listener brought up on an Anglican diet of Herbert Howells. The music revels in a fairly high level of what I might term ‘white-note dissonance’. By this I mean music that rarely moves from consonant chord to consonant chord but the closely voiced clashing harmonies produce the attractive ringing dissonances that composers such as Howells made their own. In that strength, for me, also lies its weakness. Too often, for all the obvious craft and skill in their composition, they are rather predictable. Clearly for many, enriching the repertoire with such mellifluous music can only be a good thing bringing pleasure to both performers and audiences alike for me its just a bit too bland and safe.

The music performed here dates from opening All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord of 1975 to the very recent setting of the Mass (commissioned in part by the Kansas City Chorale) from 2011. Even on a superficial acquaintance Clausen uses certain choral effects often enough for them to become musical fingerprints. I like a lot the way he has vocal lines washing over each other causing momentary chords to appear and vanish with a fluid beauty. Its not exactly radical or even unusual but it works to perfection. But then elsewhere his setting of words or treatment of spirit behind the words is rather predictable. The Mass is particularly prone to this – the dancing Gloria [track 6] revisiting an emotional landscape trod all too often by others to greater effect. So the unison opening of the Credo – “I believe in one God” and the bell-imitations of the Sanctus lack originality. That being said, I can imagine that choirs enjoy singing this music a lot. Clausen’s practical knowledge of choral singing means his music is full of passages which are as practical in their ‘sing-ability’ as they are gratifyingly juicy to perform. The Kansas City Chorale has exactly the kind of super-fine control and subtly graded colouring that benefits this music. The sopranos in particular are put through their paces with much of their part lying high and exposed – notice how with one exception solo lines in these works are the exclusive province of the sopranos. Sarah Tannehill and Pamela Williamson take some solos requiring stratospheric latter-day-Allegri-Miserere-like ascents. O vos omnes [track 12] has a spectacular example of this and it is one of the most impressive and concentrated works on the disc. To my ear this is Clausen at his most inspired; he juxtaposes various texts as well as vocal effects; the soaring soprano, angrily muttering basses, chromatically sliding vocal lines creating a tonal mist out of which emerges the glorious Lutheran chorale O sacred heart now wounded. It is a moment of pure sacred theatricality which is the high point of the disc for me by some distance. The final consolation of the major key Amen as serene as it has been hard won. Likewise the Set me as a seal which closes the disc. This stands comparison, indeed surpasses, Walton’s setting of the same text. Given the overall reflective mood of the programme this is a perfect envoi; “for love is strong as death, many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

Technically this is a superb disc. I listened to it as a standard CD although it is offered as a Super Audio CD. The church location provides both a perfect ambience and atmosphere for this sequence of sacred settings. The choir is positioned perfectly in the acoustic benefitting from its warmth without any loss of detail or impact. Although I have no other performances against which I can make comparisons, Charles Bruffy’s interpretations feel instinctively right. Long years of experience together from choir and director allow the singing to have a natural ebb and flow that removes any sense of tyrannical barlines or four-square rhythms, only the rhapsodic remains. The liner offers analyses of the works which are interestingly descriptive without getting bogged down in technical jargon. The short biography of Clausen which opens the note does read rather like a publicist’s puff – I would have preferred something longer on information and shorter on aspiration. Full texts in French, German and English as well as the original (usually) Latin are provided. Clausen steers clear of the easy-listening popularity of Eric Whiteacre or John Rutter whilst with such works as O vos Omnes shows he can be on a par with his models – the masters of 20 th Century Anglican music. I can imagine this disc being immensely popular with his admirers. Because at his best he is so good I am a little less forgiving of the generic nature of some of the works presented here but at the end of a long frustrating day this would be a disc to offer balm and great beauty in equal measure.

-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International

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Works on This Recording

1.
O vos omnes by René Clausen
Performer:  Sarah Tannehill (Soprano), Matthew Gladden (Tenor)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
2.
Magnificat by René Clausen
Performer:  Pamela Williamson (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
3.
All that hath life and breath praise ye the Lord by René Clausen
Performer:  Sarah Tannehill (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
4.
O magnum mysterium by René Clausen
Performer:  Pamela Williamson (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
5.
The Tyger by René Clausen
Performer:  Rebecca Lloyd (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
6.
The Lamb by René Clausen
Performer:  Lindsey Lang (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
7.
Mass for Double Choir by René Clausen
Performer:  Sarah Tannehill (Soprano), Pamela Williamson (Soprano)
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
8.
Set me as a seal by René Clausen
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
9.
Prayer by René Clausen
Conductor:  Charles Bruffy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

Sound Samples

All that Hath Life and Breath Praise the Lord
O magnum mysterium
The Tyger
The Lamb
Mass: Kyrie
Mass: Gloria
Mass: Credo
Mass: Sanctus
Mass: Agnus Dei
Magnificat
Prayer
O vos omnes
A New Creation: Set me as a seal

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 It is o.k.  May 14, 2013 By Sally C. (denver, CO) See All My Reviews "I prefer more edgy contemporary choral music than this and was therefore a little disappointed. It is not particularly exciting music. I do think some of Rene Clausen's works are lovely, so others may love it." Report Abuse
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