“Seven Words from the Cross” – Skylark – Sono Luminus Blu-ray Pure Audio + CD DSL-92219, 48:52 ****:
The UK-based ensemble Tenebrae, led by Nigel Short, invited Matthew Guard, the artistic director of Skylark, and his estimable ensemble to their Holy Week Festival at St. John’s Smith Square in 2018. Guard determined to make a thematic program for the Good Friday evening performance around the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Of course, this sort of association has immense historical and musical connotations that would make any entry into this rarified paradise fraught with risks, rewards, and acceptance.
Skylark succeeds admirably. This is not the traditional word for word—actually sentence for sentence—aural painting that we have come to expect from composers’ past, but rather a looser, though no less effective, association of general thematic entries with the broader sentiments that each “word” brings to our minds. A large range of music has been used, generally two works per “word”, with a predominant number favoring a distinctly American flavor. So aside from some traditional settings, we have music by Billings, Buckley, and some spirituals, with an international peppering from Poulenc, Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, and John Sheppard.
The emotional inferences are primary in this setting, reflecting, as Guard says, universal human feelings. As such it works well, even for those who may normally divest themselves from particular religious sentiments. The music itself is wonderful by any measure—who can resist William Billings? —and the performances are almost beyond criticism, so rigorously adept are the eighteen members of the Skylark Vocal Ensemble. The multichannel sound on the Blu-ray—definitely the way to hear this music—is, as always with Sono Luminus—exquisite, though the addition of a CD is a nice inclusion. A fine program.
Traditional: Were You There?
William Billings: When Jesus Wept
Traditional: New Britain (Amazing Grace)
Traditional: Wondrous Love (arranged by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker)
William Billings: Jordan (There is a land of pure delight)
Hugo Distler: Ich wollt, das ich daheime wär
Hildegard von Bingen: Karitas Abundat
Frederick Buckley: Break it Gently to my Mother
William Billings: David’s Lamentation
Francis Poulenc: Vinea mea electa
William Billings: Plymton (In deep distress I oft have cried)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Thann heilaga kross
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Death may dissolve (fantasia on a hymn by William Billings)
Traditional: Deep River (arranged by Gerre Hancock)
John Sheppard: In manus tuas
Traditional: Just as I am