Notes and Editorial Reviews
Unexpectedly energizing and renewing, contrary to any stereotypes about the soporific sameness of chant and chant-based music.
The titling of this 2005 collection is far from being merely cute or atmospheric, the term “echoes” being an explicit reference to the disc’s unique programming concept. The program juxtaposes, on the one hand, all 12 extant plainchant settings of the Compline (evening) office hymn Te lucis ante terminum (“To thee, before the close of day”); and in alternation, 10 21st-century motets on texts dating back as far as the fourth century. The latter include a set of eight Canonical Hours by John White, each piece being intended for one of the eight hours of the traditional monastic daily worship cycle; plus freestanding works by Terry Schlenker and Craig Carnahan.
In a review of an earlier (2002) St. Martin’s collection entitled The American Spirit, I applied the epithet “exquisite” to the group’s performance standards; nothing, emphatically, has gone wrong on that front in the meantime, or with David H. Wilson’s top-drawer engineering. The 12 Te lucis settings are rendered, and impeccably so, by the women’s voices, which does leave me waffling a bit: call it macho prejudice if you like—with some allowance for the fact that I’ve spent substantial chunks of time as a guest in an Anglican Benedictine monastery—but my mind’s ear tends to specify men’s voices as the “proper” medium for this repertoire, and I have no doubt that the St. Martin’s men could have done them equal justice. One might wish to hear them done alternately by men and women—which would, of course, vitiate the unity of effect obtained by performing all 12 in the same register. In the end, this was one of those times when a decision just had to be made, and the decision that was made is fully as defensible as any other. In any case, this rare opportunity to hear all 12 settings at one go is instructive; one tends not to think of plainchant as the most explicitly expressive of styles, but here one can indeed note and appreciate the subtle differences in affect between the settings for penitential seasons such as Lent and Passiontide, and those for festal use in, e.g., the Christmas and Epiphany seasons.
The contemporary pieces, of course, draw on a richer expressive vocabulary, but no less effectively. White’s explicitly chant-inspired Canonical Hours do, in the nature of the case, derive a certain degree of built-in aesthetic unity from that premise; within this parameter, however, their variety of texture and mood is commendable and engaging. At one level, the cycle traces something of an ascending and then descending energy curve as the various offices progress from the darkness of early morning, through the light of noonday, to the returning darkness of evening. At a finer level, it’s rich with expressive text-painting, like the agitated rhythms portraying—at least to this listener’s ear—the restless creative activity of the Deity in Lucis creator optime (“O matchless creator of light”). Similar felicities are no less in evidence in the free-standing companion works by Carnahan and Schlenker.
The anonymous author of Carnahan’s text promises, “Thou shalt know him when he comes . . . by the holy harmony, which his coming makes in thee”; and hearing this program did indeed “make a holy harmony” in the present reviewer; contrary to any stereotypes about the soporific sameness of chant and chant-based music, I found this listening experience unexpectedly energizing and renewing. I can’t commend it strongly enough.
-- James Carson, FANFARE