To Speak To Our Times – Choral Music by Samuel Adler – Gloria Dei Cantores

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

One of the best Adler discs available.

“To Speak to Our Time” = ADLER: A Hymn of Praise; Let Us Rejoice; My Beloved is Mine; Choral Trilogy; Psalm 23; To Speak to Our Time; How Sweet the Sound – Gloriae Dei Cantores/ Lucia Lin, Julianne Lee, v/ SharonRose Pfeiffer, Clara Gerdes. Org/ Richard K. Pugsley – Gloria Dei Cantores multichannel SACD GDCD 066, 49:10 *****:

Few composers have had the ecumenical and orchestral/choral crossover like Samuel Adler, now 94 years old. German by birth, Jewish by faith, and American by chosen adopted country, his life traverses a large segment of the important, celebratory, and desperately tragic events of the 20th century, and part of the 21st. He has not confined himself to his native traditions; many ensembles of differing faith groups have sought him out for compositions, and few, I will wager, have come away disappointed.

This SACD gives us a wide variety of his stylistic proclivities, though curiously enough, it is difficult to pin him down as to how he was composing at any given period. Adler has a proclivity for writing in the mode he needs according to the text and his own feeling about the subject at hand.

A Hymn of Praise, based on the tune “Leoni,” familiar to Jewish and Christian traditions, is the oldest work here (1957). It is straightforward in approach, clearly hymnodic, with a slight alteration among verses according to the soloist(s) used. Let Us Rejoice, coming after A Hymn of Praise proves a bit jarring from the sudden use of a seven-person handbell choir. Of course, it could be argued that, aside from a Christmas album, any use of handbells would be startling, but here the effect is also wondrous in its intended result. For Adler marries the verses from Psalm 118 which Miriam sang when the Israelites were delivered out of Egypt, and no doubt many bells were heard that day. The piece was written for his daughter’s graduation from college in 1988.

My Beloved is Mine is a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gloriae Dei Cantores, in honor of the composer’s collaborations with the ensemble, and reflective of the beauty of holiness, as the composer so states. The piece is transparent, uncomplicated, and affective, as is the biblical Songs of Songs that it seeks to interpret. Choral Trilogy is not as transparent, using  modalities that are quite illuminative in the manner of Randall Thompson and Paul Hindemith’s more benign works, two of the primary teachers that Adler encountered. The three movements are based on the words “Why have you forsaken me?” from Psalm 22, “The Spirit help us” from the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and “Sing a new song to God” from Psalm 149. Each is a marvelous pedagogy in choral word interpretation, setting not a mood for the whole movement, but a mood for each declarative line of meaning.

The ever-beloved Psalm 23 is a 90th birthday present for Adler’s sister Marianne. The glories of the long musical line are emphasized here, with simple, though not always expected harmonies to that line, but the work alternates between harmonic richness and almost chant-like interspersions of unison singing. Add to that the sparse but effective intermittent commentary from the organ, and you have a unique take on what is certainly an overly familiar psalm.

Easily the most difficult, and emotionally challenging piece on this disc is To Speak to Our Time, composed and given for the eightieth anniversary remembrance concert of the infamous Kristallnacht, the horrid “night of broken glass,” a pogrom against the Jews by the SS, civilians, and Hitler Youth in November of 1938. One does not expect cheery and jubilant music commemorating such an event, and one would be correct in finding none of that in this, one of Adler’s greatest pieces. Yet the composer was not foolish enough to portray this event in the same way you might find in a soundtrack to a Nazi documentary. Instead, there is a progress from dismal yet reflective beginnings, to an apotheosis of hope at the end. The four movements are each preceded by a Prelude, then three Interludes, featuring two violins in various dispersions, each setting the stage for the choral pieces. The first is a poem by Nelly Sachs, “The Choir of Wanderers,” speaking of the agonizing time the Jews had during World War II. What follows is one of the “psalms of ascent” which were sung upon pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in this case Psalm 121 “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from which comes my help”. Psalm 111 appears next, a psalm of praise and supplication, finally capped by William Cooper’s paraphrase of portions from the sixtieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, promising deliverance and freedom from oppression and war, and the only movement where the violins play simultaneously with the choir. Adler’s purpose was to write a piece that draws attention to the plight of refugees worldwide.

Finally, How Sweet the Sound is a setting of the hymn Amazing Grace, done in an open interval, Copland-like soundscape, a lovely reinterpretation of this well-known hymn, and a fitting conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable disc. Richard Pugsley has his famous choir in tiptop shape, easily (or they make it sound that way) navigating Adler’s well-crafted choral creations. I must mention the superb surround sound, beautifully spaced, caught in the homebase Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts. Also included is a first-class booklet with excellent notes, texts, and translations, rounding out a first-class production.

—Steven Ritter

Album Cover for To Speak to Our Time - ADLER choral music

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