This double-disc set is a determined effort to clear the shelf and record as much of Dave Brubeck's classical output as possible while the composer was still around to participate and guide the performers' hands. The project was done in only four sessions at London's Abbey Road Studios without the benefit of tuneup concerts; conductor Russell Gloyd says that the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices were practically sight-reading throughout. As such, it's a miracle that these performances turned out as well as they did -- or perhaps not, since Gloyd is Brubeck's chosen interpreter (and manager) and these busy London professionals are used to mastering new material quickly. Almost all of the set is taken up by three big sacred choral compositions, which for all of their rampant eclecticism bear the same unmistakable stamp of Brubeck's harmonic signatures and all-embracing personality. Beloved Son (1978), an Easter oratorio, has choral passages that might have been inspired by those in J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion -- which is roughly about the same subject -- but also some militancy, a free-form episode from the Dave Brubeck Quartet (which they never do when playing jazz in concert), and a rocking gospel workout on the concluding He Is Risen.
The Pange Lingua Variations (1983) is a somewhat more diffuse work based on Gregorian chants, but here you can hear the variations principle at work throughout the score, especially when the quartet comments on the material. Archaic-sounding passages abound -- the dreaded parallel fourths and fifths that composition teachers warn against, another example of Brubeck breaking the rules of choral writing for his own expressive purposes. Voice of the Holy Spirit (1985) is the longest of the pieces here, about 52 minutes, and again Brubeck doesn't let anything inhibit his choice of idiom -- a Latin-ish break for the quartet, a gaudy conclusion to Be Strong in the Lord, even a universal children's taunt as the basis of When I Was a Child. Finally, as a brief afterleaf, listeners whisk ahead to 2001, where the then-80-year-old composer looks back with unexpected poignancy in Regret, a lush bittersweet elegy for strings with skillfully wrought counterlines for cellos, capped near the close by a solo from Brubeck in the same vein. Despite his explanation in the booklet ("Perhaps it is an emotion unique to someone who has lived as many decades as I"), one still wonders what moved Brubeck to write this anguished piece, as he seems to have lived an exceptionally fulfilling life. This outpouring of creativity is treated to excellent, spacious Abbey Road SACD sound, deeper than the stereo CD version (which is more brightly lit), with only studio ambience in the rear speakers. And would you believe there is much more unrecorded classical Brubeck on the shelf?