In Paradisum = PATRICIA VAN NESS: Requiem; The Voice of the Tenth Muse – Ruth Cunningham, sop./ Sanford Sylvan, tenor/ Coro Allegro/ David Hodgkins – Navona Records NVS890, 65:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Though Coro Allegro is not a professional choir, they do sport some very talented amateur (in the very best sense of the word) expertise in the rendering of these fine works. One doesn’t often seek such finely-delineated phrasing and obviously well-rehearsed and carefully fashioned choral brilliance in choirs like this, but one certainly finds it in abundance in these performances. Not to say there are no errors in execution—even the best choirs are not immune from those—but the slight slips that might be present in rather innocuous and unimportant places in a recording like this are simply drowned out by the otherwise committed and graciously rendered singing.
The works given are in my opinion uneven; certainly the Requiem joins a long line of liturgical efforts of the last 150 years that are worthy of hearing. Van Ness’s style is one that likes to conjoin long chordal episodes with interwoven chant-like filigree weaving its way among the many ecstatic sections. This in itself is nothing new—in fact it is a tried and true formula that has been in place for hundreds of years. What makes it interesting is that it places the existing close-harmony, half-step chord explosions of composers like Whitacre and Part (and to some degree Tavener) in strict juxtaposition with itself. You almost feel like you are being transported to a more ancient age with this kind of schema until you realize the modernisms that Van Ness has subtly inserted into the music in a manner most alluring and somewhat deceptive. No matter—the music is warm, inviting, and optimistic, certainly everything a requiem in this day and age needs to be; we live daily with the horrors of Dies irae, don’t we? The Requiem, composed in 2004 was in memory of Van Ness’s close friend Julie Ince. Baritone Sanford Sylvan provides gorgeously sung solos.
Soprano Ruth Cunningham is no less effective in The Voice of the Tenth Muse, on poetry by Sappho. This is a thornier work, probably because the texts are much more so, and they almost overwhelm Van Ness’s style. As a result she seems to stray from the nicely categorized vocal stratagems of the Requiem and delves into something more reflective and appropriate—or at least hopefully so—for what is very florid and floral textual allusions. To me it doesn’t always work, though I do like a lot of the music. But the word and note seem to contraindicate each other in much of the piece, albeit her sense of form and setting remain very high indeed. It’s not an inaccessible piece—far from it—and it may be a case of an acquired taste. But as of now I have not, unfortunately, developed a taste for it—you might. In any case, this is a worthy release loving rendered by a composer definitely worth hearing, with ample sonics and fine breadth.