"Mandorla" = MARTIN: Mass for Double Choir; GRIEG: 4 Psalms; HANSON: The Cherubic Hymn – Gloriæ Dei Cantores/ Elizabeth Patterson, director – Gloriæ Dei Cantores

by | Apr 27, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

"Mandorla" = MARTIN: Mass for Double Choir; GRIEG: 4 Psalms; HANSON: The Cherubic Hymn – Gloriæ Dei Cantores/ Elizabeth Patterson, director – Gloriæ Dei Cantores multichannel SACD 048, 65:35 [Distr. by Paraclete Press] *****:
A Mandorla is that almond shaped outline that occurs when you cross two circles with one another—their intersection (the word actually means “almond”), and is often used when speaking about the intersection of heaven and earth in Christian theology, hence the music on this disc. Martin’s Mass for Double Choir is the highest expression of liturgical music (he, though easily considered a “religious” composer, did not concentrate aspects of his faith especially in choral music with the exception of a few examples) from the composer’s pen, and one of the genuinely supreme masterworks of the last century in that genre. It was also written before the Schoenbergian metamorphosis that so imbued his later pieces. Though he never became an atonal composer, Schoenberg influenced him greatly, and Martin grafted portions of the twelve-tone system into his own rigid compositional ethos. This piece, composed when he was 32, is in an easily-assimilated style, though one must wonder what his Calvinist father would have thought about his son writing a mass.

There are no wasted notes in Martin’s music; everything is calculated, almost to a fault, whether in this piece or in one of his concertos, or one of his choral-orchestral religious works. In fact, of modern composers, only Samuel Barber comes to my mind when I think of the exquisiteness of a composer’s craft. That being said, Martin’s Mass is something highly concentrated both in form and emotional content. It has not wanted for excellent recordings. Before this one, I kept three in my collection: Choir of the Bavarian radio on BR Classics (SACD), a Martin collection of choral music on Coro by the Sixteen (CD), and an essential Robert Shaw disc on Telarc called Evocation of the Spirit. The Shaw also uses over 75 singers, but the precision of the implementation is a marvel, and he gets everything just right—no one should be without it that cares about this music.

The BR recording uses the same size choir that the Gloriæ Dei Cantores give us here, around 40, while the Sixteen go with 24. In comparison there are two things that stick out, aside from the sound (this is a vivid recording); both of these previous issues play Martin as if he was a Renaissance composer, tightly focused melodic lines without vibrato, or at least with very little. This is a trend I have been noticing for some years, of making modern liturgical music fit the confines of ancient chant. These releases make Martin into Palestrina, and I am not at all sure that he would have ever heard it like this or even approved. Gloriæ Dei Cantores sings this with full vibrato right from the start, and it immediately changes the tenor of the music from austere to neo-romantic and more like I think Martin thought of it. This recording also plays the dynamic contrasts and consequent emotive tension to the hilt, while the others do not. This too is something that takes the intellectual frisson out of the music and instead allows a more pietistic sensibility to reign, again I think to good effect. The Shaw, for its size and magnificent execution is still required, but you need at least two versions of this work, and there are other things to come.

One of these is the series of Grieg psalms, actually poetic ascriptions drawn from Christian piety and recast by poet Hans Adolph Brorson as hymns. They were the last things Grieg wrote, much of the time between bouts of illness, and though they are lovely and very Griegian—and that is always a good thing—I found it hard to think of them as particularly religious. Perhaps hearing them in English would have helped, I don’t know, and there are those that think a composition religious no matter what the music is, as long as the texts are sacred. Sorry, but you can put the bible to music by the Rolling Stones all day long, and it is never going to have the desired effect. This of course isn’t like that—the music is ravishing—and perhaps as time goes on I will adjust. But it is definitely worth hearing and fills an important gap in Grieg’s body of work, pretty well divested of anything sacred.

The Hanson Cherubic Hymn, according to the notes, has not had a recording since the 1950s. Could be—there is not one available currently, and though I have even seen the sheet music I have not heard this piece before. It is typically Hanson, and if you like him you will like this, reworked to take advantage of the Church of the Transfiguration’s E.M. Skinner organ (Orleans, MA, where this was recorded). I enjoyed this piece to no end, and the GDC sings it with gusto and appropriate reverence. However, lest there be confusion, a word about the title. I don’t know if Hanson knew this or not; the notes are correct in saying that this is from the Orthodox Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, but what Orthodox normally refer to in this liturgy as the “Cherubic Hymn” is the text sung before the Great Entrance with the paten and chalice, that goes as follows: “Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn unto the life-creating trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares. That we may receive the King of all who comes invisibly escorted in triumph by ranks of angels. Alleluia.”  The text given here that Hanson calls the “Cherubic Hymn” is actually the first part of the “Anaphora”, or “Eucharistic prayer” that is said in a low voice by the priest, and has never, ever, been sung by the choir, chanters or congregation. Hanson has simply borrowed a text that he liked and set it to music. It is most affecting.

So… great sound, performances, music, colorful and informative notes, no quibbles. Why wait?

— Steven Ritter  

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