Conspirare / Craig Hella Johnson

Herbert Howells, Eric Whitacre, Ildebrando Pizzetti: Requiem

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Requiem, a two-disc set by Conspirare, the Austin, TX-based vocal ensemble, was originally released in 2006 on the Clarion label and received two Grammy nominations. This release on Harmonia Mundi has trimmed several tracks so that it could be issued on a single disc, and it received the Dutch Edison Award in the Choral Music category. It's easy to hear why it has been so highly honored. The group sings with an exceptionally pure and focused tone, and its blend is generously warm. Founder and conductor Craig Hella-Johnson leads the ensemble of about three-dozen singers in performances of unusually supple and nuanced phrasing. The most familiar work is Herbert Howells' Requiem, which the composer wrote as a memorial to his son in 1936, but which wasn't performed until 1980. Drawing its texts largely from the Psalms, it's an achingly heartfelt work and the group pours itself into it with glowing intensity. All the works on the album are in a similar vein of introspective melancholy. The two movements from Eric Whitacre's Three Songs of Faith, based on poems by e.e. cummings, are especially effective: radiant, awe-filled illuminations of the texts. His subtly innovative treatment of choral textures gives his work a distinctive sensuality. Ildebrando Pizzetti's 1922 Messa di Requiem is in a more conventionally late Romantic idiom work that draws on both plainsong and Renaissance polyphony. It's an expressive piece, but the composer seems not to have known when he had said enough of a good thing, and it wears out its welcome, especially in the interminable Dies Irae. The remaining short pieces are attractive and emotionally direct, but they don't have the depth of the Howells or the Whitacre. Fans of the group may want to seek out the original Clarion release, if only to hear all three movements of Whitacre's set. The sound is clean and warmly ambient.

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