Scott Perkins: The Stolen Child: Choral Works Of Scott Perkins

Cappella Clausura: Exultet Terra: Choral Music Of Hilary Tann

Both of these collections featuring works by Scott Perkins and Hilary Tann are exceptional, ones any listener with a love for choral music can embrace without reservation. It's Perkins' The Stolen Child, however, that proves to be the more immediately engaging of the two, simply because its overarching theme concerning the loss of childhood innocence is so affecting and relatable. And with magical imagery having to do with sleep and nature integrated into its design, his material exudes an ethereal character, especially in the title piece, that leaves an indelible imprint.

It's a theme that's common to all three of the works featured, which are performed with exquisite grace by Audivi and based on texts by William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, and Walter de la Mare. Composed of twelve singers (four trios of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses), the Michigan-based vocal ensemble brings Perkins' material to breathtaking life in performances conducted by the composer and recorded at St. Joseph Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The clarity and precision with which they render the texts account in part for why the recording makes such a powerful impression, as does the seeming ease with which the singers meet the polyphonic challenges of Perkins' settings. Great pleasure can also be derived from the shifting layers of vocal counterpoint and the contrasts between male and female voices in these intricately woven pieces, and though the singing of baritone Dan Moore and tenors Tyler Ray and Tim Keeler is featured in two of the works, group singing is the focal point.

Especially haunting is the six-movement title work (2006), in which a magical being attempts to protect a child from future sorrows by spiriting it off to the natural world (“Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand / For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand”). There's a sultriness to Perkins' melodies that's potent enough to seduce an adult, let alone a less worldly child, and one repeatedly basks in the glorious effect of the cascading vocal melodies, regardless of whether the movement's character expresses the liveliness of youth (“To a Child Dancing in the Wind I”) or the wistfulness that sets in as the end draws near (“When You are Old”). Structurally the work impresses, too, with Yeats's title poem framing the four inner movements, which constitute a life cycle, with prologue and epilogue treatments.

Incorporating text from Whitman's Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, which describes a boy watching two mockingbirds nesting together by the sea on Paumanok (a Native American name for Long Island), A Word Out of the Sea (2003) is less ethereal than The Stolen Child but effective nonetheless, especially when it's distinguished by marvelous vocal interplay and Keeler's memorable performance (witness, for example, how boldly his voice leaps forth during the “Shine! shine! shine! / Pour down your warmth, great sun!” and “Blow! blow! blow! / Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok's shore” parts within the “Once Paumanok” and “Till of a sudden” movements). Lost innocence is here conveyed by the boy's realization that one bird's failure to return to the nest is explained by death.

Not surprisingly, the enticing ethereal quality of the title work re-emerges in the 2016 setting The World of Dream, both in the tone of Perkins' writing and the texts (recalling Yeats' words in The Stolen Child, Auden's “A Tale” describes a fairy attempting during the night to lure someone away to dance “under the lovely trees / To the music of the nightingale”). Bringing a satisfying sense of unity to the fifty-minute recording, the concluding “Lullaby,” sung to a dying child, alludes melodically to the opening work, despite being part of a separate composition. Each of the three settings feels modern in its compositional design yet at the same time very much connected to the longstanding traditions of choral music. Though there's a natural fluidity to the vocalizing that ties it to writing of the past, Perkins' beautiful settings never feel anything less than contemporary.

Complementary to The Stolen Child is Exultet Terra: Choral Music Of Hilary Tann, significant also for being Cappella Clausura's first appearance on the Navona imprint. Directed by Amelia Leclair, currently a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center, the vocal ensemble (on this recording, four groupings of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses) was founded by Leclair in 2004 to not only give the works of women composers exposure but ideally secure a place for them in the classical canon. The group name was chosen deliberately in honour of music written by cloistered seventeenth-century Italian nuns (one English translation of the Spanish word clausura is cloister) and thus references the obstacles women composers have faced throughout history.

It's fitting, then, that this June 2016 recording would feature works by contemporary Welsh-born composer Hilary Tann, currently the John Howard Payne Professor of Music at New York's Union College, as well as pieces by Hildegard von Bingen, recognized as one of the first female composers. The recording itself splits into halves: in the first, three works by Tann for women's voices are framed by pieces by Hildegard von Bingen, all five of them sung a cappella and arranged by LeClair; in the second, Tann's five-movement Exultet Terra (“Let the Earth Be Glad”) augments Cappella Clausura's voices with a double reed quintet of English horn, oboes, and bassoons.

In the first half, Tann draws a connecting line from her own ethereal choral settings to von Bingen's by quoting in two of the three parts the daring vocal leap with which von Bingen's “O Deus” (from her medieval opera Ordo Virtutum) begins. Tann herself uses texts by poets of her native Wales, with “The Moor,” for example, featuring words by Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, and in the subsequent “Contemplations 8, 9” and “Contemplations 21, 22,” she incorporates texts by Anne Bradstreet, one of North America's first published female poets. Particularly memorable is the moment during the latter setting when the female voices intone exultantly, while the concluding “Rex noster promptus est” is memorable also for conjoining the male singers' deep voices to the high-pitched utterances of the women. Regardless of the temporal divide separating the two composers, the material by von Bingen and Tann is equally marked by a gracefulness and lyricism that's amplified by Cappella Clausura's performances.

The forty-minute Exultet Terra, its text drawn from Biblical verses and three poems by the Welsh poet George Herbert, benefits greatly from the inclusion of the double reed quintet, with the contrasts in timbre between the voices and instruments enriching the presentation considerably. In formal terms, the work satisfies in separating the three vocal-and-instrumental settings with two shorter ones featuring reeds only, and contrasts of mood are plentiful, too: whereas the opening “Exultet Terra” and closing “Iubilate Domino” movements are rapturous, even at times boisterous, the central “In Sanctis Eius,” the vocalizing so beautifully complemented by Peggy Pearson's oboe, is peaceful and contemplative. Subtle contrasts are evident in the instrumentals as well, with the rather plaintive quality shared by “Trio of Descent” (performed by two oboes and English horn) and “Trio of Ascent” (two bassoons and English horn) offset by the slightly livelier tone of the latter.

January 2017