This album is haunting, gorgeous, and hopeful, despite the “Requiem” title that might suggest something a little dour or provocatively gloomy. Though the Requiem of Herbert Howells was started as early as 1932, the death of his nine year old son from polio in 1935 undoubtedly colored the piece which he finished in 1936, and this event also shed a light haze over much of the remaining work of the composer’s life. The work is beautifully life-affirming and cathartic, not as dense as his Hymnus Paradisi or any number of other works, but leaner and more direct in its appeal the basic, quieter emotions – the type that two friends experience when discussing a tragedy.
Eric Whitacre has been receiving a lot of attention the last few years, and these two songs provide ample evidence as to what the public finds attractive in his music—an elevated dramatic sense without abandoning an intensely melodic perspective that overplays its hand with a bold, primary color assertiveness that forces emotional reaction. Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) gives us the longest and hence primary work on this disc, a stunningly effective treatment of the Requiem, polyphonic in style in imitation of the old masters, but romantic in temperament, even post-romantic in some of the harmonies. This is a lush and sweetly suave treatment that registers well with the senses, compelling and soothing at the same time.
The Southern Harmony hymn tune Prospect is well know to those of us who adore shape-note singing, and Stephen Paulus has given it the royal treatment in his unadorned setting, one that respects the original without distorting it. And finally, there are two premieres here, Donald Grantham’s We Remember Them, inspired by the 1966 clock tower shootings at the University of Texas, a piece that starts darkly and emerges into a brilliant and hopeful light. Eliza Gilkyson sooths us with a song called Requiem, written shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami—it is lovely indeed. David Mead suggests that the reference to “mother Mary”, in this case, “mother Mary, full of grace, awaken” is more of an allusion to the “universal divine feminine” than to anything specifically Roman Catholic. If so, why use such bona fide Christian symbolism in words that are part and parcel of the Christian liturgy? Can’t the divine feminine come up with anything specific and divinely feminine herself? Seems weird to me, but I still like the song, exquisitely arranged by Craig Hella Johnson.
The SA is fantastic on this recording, some of the best-rendered surround I have heard period – let alone from Harmonia mundi – and the performances are immaculate. Definitely one of the best choral albums of the year, essential to anyone who loves great choral music.
— Steven Ritter