Noel Edison

Morten Lauridsen: O magnum Mysterium; O nata lux; Madrigali; Mid-Winter Songs

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Based on a handful of skillfully crafted, warmly accessible choral works, Morten Lauridsen has achieved a degree of fame and attracted a devoted following rare for a contemporary American composer. His published output is small, consisting of less than two dozen complete works (although the number grows somewhat when individual movements of larger works are counted, and various arrangements of the same piece). He is best-known for "Dirait-on," from his choral cycle, Les Chansons des Roses, settings of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke. Lauridsen's French text setting is execrably unidiomatic, but it hardly matters because the music is so ravishingly lyrical and memorably melodic that it has nearly acquired the kind of iconic timelessness of a piece like Barber's Adagio. Even on first hearing, it sounds familiar, as if it had always existed, and it lodges itself so firmly in the ear and mind that for many listeners, it's difficult to imagine a point at which it was not a part of their consciousness. The a cappella motet O magnum mysterium may not be as hummable, but for many in the community of choral enthusiasts, it has almost the same status. While he doesn't repeat himself, Lauridsen has a distinctive sound, and his music is recognizable because of his idiosyncratic use of certain characteristic intervals and melodic figures, and his adroit manipulation of unresolved dissonances. This disc, by the Ontario-based Elora Festival Singers, led by Noel Edison, includes three of Lauridsen's cycles, Madrigali, Les Chansons des Roses, and Mid-Winter Songs, as well as O magnum mysterium and O nata lux, from Lux aeterna. The performances are solid, with secure intonation, tight ensemble, and a warm sound. They don't have the touch of transcendence, though, that the very best performers, such as Stephen Layton leading Polyphony, bring to this repertoire -- a tonal luminosity and fluidity, with a drive toward the ecstatic -- that can give it an overwhelming impact. The singers always sound a little too safe, for instance, in the opening of Mid-Winter Songs, where the music calls for a punch that's almost surprising in its vehemence. Naxos' sound is clean and warm, but earthbound where it needs to be soaringly expansive.

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