Classical CD Reviews
“Surprised by Beauty” – Minimalism in Choral Music = BRYARS: And so ended Kant’s traveling in this world; PART: The Beatitudes; LOMON: Transport; DUCKWORTH: Songs from Southern Harmony; WALKER: Songs from S. Har. – Boston Secession/Jane R. Frank – Brave
Published on May 15, 2008
This is a well-conceived, beautifully sung album that leaves me with just a few questions. First, there is nothing mentioned of the so-called “bonus tracks” offered here, those by William Walker, the compiler of the Southern Harmony, the most popular shape-note book in history (done around 1835). Without them, the total timing of this album would be reduced to around 47 minutes, and to me that renders it almost uncompetitive regardless of quality (with few exceptions in my experience). Why no mention of the noted and notable Mr. Walker? Second, the notes go to great length to explain that the appellation “minimalism” is not what we are all led to believe when we see or hear this title, referring to the music by Glass, early Adams, Reich, and Reilly, developed in the late 1960s. It is used here in the sense of “simple chords; regular rhythms, restrained dynamics; unpretentious language” (notes). If this is the case–and listening to this I know for a fact that it is–then why complicate the process by confusing the musical record-buying public with the term “minimalism” to begin with? Many, when seeing this, will avoid buying this album because they think it contains music that they are allergic to, when in fact they are being misled to no good purpose. A different title should have been used.
What is here is delectable. Gavin Bryars gives us an interesting trip through the dullish walks of philosopher Immanuel Kant, setting a text from his biography that reflects perfectly his own philosophy of innate moral goodness, something that the Nazi victims of Ruth Loman’s Transport would surely have had trouble understanding. This jagged and brutal work nevertheless proclaims a sort of sharp-edged beauty all of its own, the affecting last few bars that trail off mid-sentence giving all pause for reflection. Arvo Part is a known quantity; his Beatitudes display no surprises with the exception of the until-then quiet organ taking over at the end and finishing with a surprisingly loud affirmation of these most sublime teachings. William Duckworth’s masterly reworking of the hymns of the Southern Harmony are perhaps not as emotionally involving as the wonderful originals, but as a composition serve as one man’s tribute to this gem of a genre, post-minimalist style. However, the notes’ proclamation that this is only the second time any of these have been recorded is not quite accurate; Lovely Music has a recording of the entire four books (now available for download at Amazon), and there is one other recording as well with just a sampling. Finally the three “Walker” hymns–you hear them and I am afraid the Duckworth fades from memory compared to these stunning originals. But that does not disparage Duckworth, only that it is tough to beat the prototypes!
The sound here is excellent, the singing spectacular, and I hope to hear more from these folks in the future.
– Steven Ritter