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30 May 2015

REVIEW: Seraphic Fire: "Reincarnations: A Century of American Choral Music"

by Joanne Sydney Lessner (Opera News)

As a representation of a century’s worth of American choral music (the twentieth, that is) this recording covers a good deal of ground, from Samuel Barber to Nico Muhly. Patrick Dupré Quigley’s accomplished ensemble Seraphic Fire offers a focused, energized, and lovingly massaged sound. In Shawn Crouch’s “Light of Common Day,” the group boldly fuses tight discordant clusters that seem to resonate with more pitches than even exist. For the anonymous folk hymn “Give good gifts one to another,” they adopt a hint of twang to suggest a homey, simpler time, and they sink into an earthy, rooted tone for the Shaker tune “Followers of the Lamb.” The three songs that comprise Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations are more inventive rhythmically than harmonically, especially compared to Morten Lauridsen’s colorfully rich Mid-Winter Songs. These settings of poems by Robert Graves personalize the chiaroscuro of winter by transmuting it to the bright fire of romantic encounters conducted in the dark. The ensemble shimmers above Anna Fateeva’s propulsive piano accompaniment, with a robust exploration of the tonal pitch groups in the opening “Lament for Pasiphaë.” They achieve a concerted polyphonic hush in the repeated phrases of “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep.” Here, the dissonances become beautiful in their tenderness, before the contrast of a disruptively moody piano solo. Similarly, the clashing layers of the opening of Dominick DiOrio’s “I Am” yield to sunny rays of heavenly light in this exploration of the afterlife. Muhly’s “I Cannot Attain Unto It” may take its title too much to heart. After several hearings, the piece still struck me as amorphous, despite its attempt to grab attention in the midsection with a pattern of stuttered syllables. Here, as elsewhere, the sopranos occasionally push throatily out of tune. The men’s voices are more consistently appealing, and the group is at its most satisfying in compact, central harmonies with the voice parts in close proximity.