Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 476 5057
Reviewed by David Bollard, April 1st, 2014
This disc presents a strong work marking a new creative step for one of our leading composers, a welcome addition to masses in the ‘classical’ tradition, and – perhaps most importantly – a profound expression of contrasted feelings of joy, celebration, and grief at the loss of the composer’s young son Eli, senselessly murdered in 2008. The work underwent a protracted gestation period (2000-2010), beginning with an acknowledgement of the sun in all its power, majesty and historical significance, and eventually reaching finality through Westlake’s desire to express his desolation and achieve peace through composition. The sonic parallel between ‘sun’ and ‘son’ influenced the impetus to complete the project.
This is an ambitious, extended work (over 40’), largely tonal and cast in eight movements of differing durations. The text is drawn from various sources, some of them adapted to suit musical requirements: Pharoah Akhnaten’s Hymn to the Aten, Galileo Galilei’s Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger – thefirst scientific treatise dealing with observations of the moon and stars following his newly-invented telescope), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice), and words of the Buddha as employed in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It works well to utilise the boy soprano in two of the movements, hence the overriding sentiment there becomes one of purity and innocence, symbolic of a life cruelly and prematurely ended; and there is a brief instrumental interlude, Aurora, approaching the half-way point.
One of the striking aspects of the mass is its architectural strength. There is an impressive arc: the first big climax (unconsciously related to the Golden Section?), occurs in the sixth section, Hymn to the Aten, where an electrifying section for percussion septet leads to an emotional peak for voices and sparse orchestral accompaniment, featuring syncopation, metrical changes, additive rhythms and a display of energetic force; at over 9’, this is the most extended movement. As in movement two, the spirits of Stravinsky and Orff hover. But Westlake intends more: a deft recall in the closing movement of the Prologue’s material, based on a madrigal text written around 1560 by Giovan Leonardo Primavera, O Sol, almo immortale (O Sun, deathless life-giver – literally deathless soul). Now the mood is more intense, the minor-keyed music rising to an enormous climax before settling on a quiet F-natural played by violas, which gently prefaces a major-key passage expressing acceptance and closure. This is strangely reminiscent of the ending of Britten’s War Requiem: same key, different forces but same feeling of resolution, same hushed beauty.
I feel that this is an important work, very far removed from Westlake’s early up-tempo, motoric pieces. The performance is compelling, the balance between choir and orchestra judiciously considered, the sound ambient and warm. The presentation is appealing, with a vivid cover image of the sun set on an orange-red background, and the composer’s own annotations lend a moving personal note. My sole reservation concerns Liam Crisanti’s diction, especially the vowels, but this is negligible in such an admirable artistic result.
Very highly recommended.