An essential recording of a much-missed artist. I’ll just leave it at that.
“Far in the Heavens” = STEPHEN PAULUS: Prayers and Remembrances; Nunc dimittis; The Incomprehensible; I Have Called You By Name; Little Elegy; When Music Sounds – True Concord Voices & Orch./ Eric Holtan – Reference Recordings/Fresh! FR-716, 66:14 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
I had just finished reviewing this disc when the news came that Stephen Paulus had garnered a 2016 Grammy Award, for Best Classical Composition (Prayers and Remembrances). Often the Grammys, and certainly the Pulitzers, get things horribly wrong, but I must say that this recording, possessing a virginal freshness and utter simplicity of concept, is as worthy a winner as we have had in any number of years. Stephen Paulus, whom I first became acquainted during his 1980s stint as Composer-in-Residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (and with whom he recorded a magnificent disc of orchestral music in 1990 on New World Records) has been a mainstay on the classical scene for years now, a catalog of 600 works, 50 recordings, and a host of awards and accolades as deserving as any other contemporary composer. He gave classical music a good name.
I say “gave” because in 2014 the world lost his musical luster after a massive stroke felled him, leaving him in a coma for over a year before his death. This disc, commissioned mostly by the performers involved and Mrs. Dorothy Vanek of Tucson in memory of her husband Robert and those friends of theirs killed on 9/11, is in fact a ten-year tribute to those who perished in that disaster of disasters, and was under the supervision of the composer right up until his illness. You will most likely not have heard of the musicians, founded in 2004 as Tucson Chamber Artists, and now renamed. This is their debut recording, and what a way to start off. They should be immensely proud of this achievement.
For those Paulus fans, the first thing you will notice, if you haven’t been tracking him chronologically over the years (and I had not) is how different this music is from those heady and fresh ASO days. His tonality was still somewhat wayward—in the good sense—back then, and the whiffs of newly-perceived romantic tendencies were just making their presence felt by brushing off the doldrums of academia-inspired atonality from the 1960s and 1970s. Paulus never bought into this sort of thing and was one of the first to stake his claim in the new tonality, but his music could be complex while still remaining accessible. This disc, representing the latest and greatest, shows a composer in the thralls of radical simplicity, a quest for the direct and just under-the-radar sentimental, albeit not cloying or irritating at all. His expression is not unlike some of the latest choral masters but without some of the clustered harmonies, and I would be lying to you if I didn’t mention that thoughts of John Rutter kept popping up in my brain any number of times while auditioning this.
But he is not derivative, and certainly not phony in any manner. The expression, almost as if he knew his own end was near, is heartfelt and utterly direct, making no pretenses and laying no excuses for his own brand of heart-on-sleeve emotion. Prayers and Remembrances was created with a Mozart-size chamber orchestra in mind since it was to appear with the vaunted Requiem, and the whole tenor of the piece is one of gratitude for those gone by and hope for the future—this is no dour memorial vehicle. Just listen to the exquisite turns of movement three, “Music, When Soft Voices Die” with lyrics by Shelly (he uses both religious and non-religious yet spiritually oriented texts in each movement) to get to the heart of this magnificent work.
The other pieces coming after the Prayers could just as easily be a continuation of the former, so attuned are they to the overall mood of the program. I can’t get enough of When Music Sounds, surely one of the loveliest pieces I have heard in the past year, and an example of just how emotionally elevated Paulus’ art had become. This is as apt a tribute to this man as I can imagine, recorded splendidly as always by Reference, and played and sung to perfection by a group of young artists whose own emotional connection to the man and the music is palpable in every bar. Tremendous!