“Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings” = DONALD GRANTHAM: La canción desesperada; SHAWN KIRCHNER: Tu sangre en la mía, Soneto 53; Tu voz, Soneto 52; CARY RATCLIFF: Ode to Common Things – Conspirare/ Conspirare Ch. Players/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807637, 73:55 ***1/2:

Conspirare’s latest foray into the recorded realm involves a rather ambitious project to involve three contemporary composers using texts by the Chilean writer and poet Pablo Neruda, a pen name for politician Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and remained a controversial political presence among the various regimes during his lifetime, a committed communist. He has been called the greatest poet of the twentieth century and adulated by many writers.

Setting his poetry to music is no easy task due to it surrealist subjectivism, and when extended passages are employed the difficulties only mount. This is the problem I detect in Cary Ratcliff’s Ode to Common Things, poetry reflecting the poet’s obsession with the small and the ordinary. Though the subject seems simple, the extended 46-minute choral symphony lacks the necessary contrasts and variety to keep from getting tiresome. There are many superb moments that I think might have been reduced to a much more manageable length while still getting the composer’s idiom across.

Shawn Kirchner’s Tu sangre en la mía and Tu voz, Son (Soneto 53 and 52) typify that conciseness that seems to serve Neruda better. Lovely works both in concentrated and profoundly intense settings, they show Neruda’s universal attractiveness to full effect.

The best work though is Donald Grantham’s La canción desesperada, a 2005 work revised here from probably the best-known of the composers represented. The piece grips from first to last, with a continuity and expressiveness fully suited to the choral medium. Grantham’s mastery of the art is evident from bar one, full of color and shading while featuring a melodic locus, a significant addition to the choral repertory.

As if it needs to be said, Conspirare’s performances are exemplary in every facet of the art; Craig Hella Johnson has them firing on all eight cylinders, displaying virtuosity, gorgeous tonal quality, and enthusiasm perfectly suited to the wonderful surround sound that Harmonia mundi has given them.

—Steven Ritter