> Choral and Song
Cunningham, Horner-Kwiatek; Angel, Olund, Lipnik, Richards; Kerrod, Williams, harp; Davis, organ; Weinfield, viola; Lipnik, recorder; Spears, conductor. Texts and translations. New Amsterdam Records NWAM035
Gregory Spears composed his Requiem on commission from the choreographer Christopher Williams to accompany his ballet Hen's Teeth. On the evidence presented here, Spears is a mature, accomplished composer. Sometimes, however, he hides his sophistication; the opening features long stretches of C minor over a pedal point, and a deliberative pacing that is tediously familiar, in the neo-medieval, post-minimalist fashion of Pärt, Tavener and Gorecki. A tantalizingly dissonant sonority appears early on, however, recurring as one in a series of percussively plucked harp chords, indicating that Spears has more range to offer. Matters indeed intensify, with swooping vocal appoggiaturas amid an accelerating pace. Spears turns out to have contrapuntal skill, harmonic imagination and a knack for layering his diverse musical building blocks to achieve a wide range of dramatic effects. He also deploys his unusual forces — six voices, two harps, chimes, recorder, organ and viola — with expertise and resourcefulness.
In his libretto, Spears alternates passages from the familiar Latin Mass with excerpts from old Breton and Middle French texts. In track three, a setting of a poem that translates as "I am a swan of purity," Spears switches to a cappella vocals and employs a denser, more rapidly evolving harmonic language; this makes a clear demarcation between sacred and secular and provides welcome variety. Track four begins with quick upward vocal melismas on each syllable of "Agnus Dei," another C-minor-grounded melodic trope, which then repeats multiple times as additional fragments are layered on. Despite the emerging polyphony, the effect is that of massed forces swirling around a large tonal boulder that refuses to budge. Mercifully, sharp chords and glissandos from the harps break in about four minutes in. Shortly thereafter, quite dissonant instrumental harmonies intrude against the still-modal vocals, which now shift into stuttering whispers. Stuff like this really perks up the ears, heightens the expressive level and makes you wish the composer would indulge his inventive, original side more often.
The singers — sopranos Ruth Cunningham and Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek (of Anonymous 4), tenors John Olund and Lawrence Lipnik and bass Kurt-Owen Richards — intone their mellifluous, chant-style vocal figures with pure, dignified beauty, and they dig in eagerly when the writing becomes more vigorous and accented. In general, Spears manages the ancient-modern juxtaposition better than most others who work this territory, but despite his considerable skill, his fallback still seems to be extended passages of tonal stasis that straddle the precarious line between meditative and boring. This Requiem is both fascinating and vexing.