Seven Words from the Cross

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The American small choir Skylark, with origins in Boston and Atlanta, has become recognized for unusual programming that draws unexpected connections between musical works. Seven Words from the Cross does this, and more. The program, ranging from African American spirituals to William Billings to Hildegard von Bingen to contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, is varied yet logical and satisfying in its flow; the juxtaposition of Billings with Poulenc's Vinea mea electa is especially ingenious. And then, Skylark and director Matthew Guard kick things up to another level by fitting these virtues to the Holy Week theme of the seven last words of Christ. The program was devised in response to an invitation from the British group Tenebrae for Skylark to perform during the Holy Week Festival at St. John's Smith Square in London, and it was shaped partly by that invitation: Guard included the spirituals and the works by Billings, for instance, because they felt that they were representing the U.S. at a quintessentially British event. One striking aspect is how Guard finds pieces, such as the U.S. Civil War song Break It Gently to My Mother (by Frederick Buckley), that tangentially apply to the traditional biblical words; these words are set directly only in one work, John Sheppard's In manus tuas. Even more impressive is that Guard's mission to research unusual choral repertory in search of the desired effect reaches new heights here. He unearths a Finnish composition, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Death may dissolve (Fantasia on a hymn by William Billings), that had never previously been recorded, but that works magnificently here. The choir has a full-throated, slightly rough sound that suits Billings beautifully and throws new light on the likes of Hugo Distler's Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär. Are there things to question? Guard wrings his hands over the issue of cultural appropriation in the spirituals, where a simpler solution might have been to employ one of many African Americans who would have welcomed the gig as a guest vocalist. Sono Luminus' audiophile sound, captured in the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is first-rate (a Blu-Ray audio disc is included in the physical release as well as a conventional CD), and this album was rightly nominated for a Best Choral Performance Grammy award in 2018.

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