A cappella, Choral Music, Classical, New Music
Tall Poppies TP218
Reviewed by Inge Southcott, May 1st, 2014
The Sydney Chamber Choir, under Paul Stanhope’s direction, performs with precision and vitality on this disc of a cappella choral works composed by a former member – the New Zealand-born Clare Maclean. The major piece is her Osanna Mass (29:07) written specifically for the choir, and it is no surprise that it won her the Australian Art Music Award for vocal music /choral in 2012. Also included are four older compositions commissioned by other choirs which are uniformly excellent: In the Year that King Uzziah Died (5:59), Os anthos chortou (3:23), Vive in Deo (7:01) and We Welcome Summer (4:37).
Maclean (b.1958) writes serious, beautifully crafted music that is compelling, complex, and original. Richly textured and intricate, it shows her deep understanding of choral traditions. The influence of her early experience singing polyphonic Renaissance music shows particularly in the Osanna Mass which is based on the set of plainchants for the Ordinary of the Mass, Kyriale IX (Cum iubilo), making it akin to a Renaissance paraphrase mass. Each movement also incorporates the chants of other movements, as well as Jewish liturgical melodies. She uses sharper and flatter modes to express symbolically praise and prayer, the two themes running through the whole work, along with allusions to chiming church bells (repeated and overlapping cascading phrases), and also birdsong (blackbird, magpie and currawong). The impression is often of sounds echoing in a huge cathedral but this is created by her expertise in canonic writing, rather than by actual cathedral acoustics. (We are not told in fact where the recording was made.) The unsigned CD notes are otherwise very informative and appear to have been prepared by Maclean herself. I also relished her use of dense clusters resolving into a single line taken by one part or a solo voice, and the use of silence. The harmonies are complex but never harsh as the choir’s intonation is superb.
I found her choice of texts very interesting too. For Vive in Deo, she used epigraphs from Christian graves in the Roman catacombs from the first three centuries C.E. These are very moving, especially those referring to dead children. We Welcome Summer is a Michael Leunig poem from The Prayer Tree, and os anthos chortos (As the Flower of the Grass) is a setting of Sappho’s fragment 31. The Sydney Chamber Choir has a warm, well-blended sonority and excellent diction. The basses sing the very low notes of the “Kyrie” (Osanna Mass) with apparent ease, and the higher voices are never shrill.
This disc is her second with this choir on the Tall Poppies label. The first was released in 1995 on the Tall Poppies label (TP 073). Maclean now lectures at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.
I really enjoyed this disc. Osanna Mass is a welcome addition to the a cappella choral repertoire and will no doubt soon become a favourite for top groups who enjoy a rewarding challenge.