A unifying factor in the pieces on this CD is their unique instrumentation: except for one a cappella work, the pieces use full choir accompanied by one or two wind instruments. Roger Davidson, a French-born composer based in the U.S., has written six settings of the Latin Mass, from which he has removed any references specific to Christian doctrine. This CD includes three of them, Missa Universalis Nos. IV -- VI, as well as a setting of the Lord's Prayer in German. No. 4, accompanied by English horn, which is notably static -- its six movements are slow moving and largely homophonic, with little sense of harmonic direction. The movements don't sound exactly like minimalism; they lack the sense of momentum and meaningful transformation that make minimalism work. The English horn serves an obbligato function, but doesn't create sufficient interest to generate a clear sense of direction. No. V is more melodically active, and its Gloria is in a fast tempo, contrasting with the other movements. Its clarinet accompaniment draws on Klezmer influences, and provides much of the expressive interest. No. VI dispenses with the Mass text and is instead a litany of the names of God in a variety of faith traditions, often using chant-like monophonic lines. A problem that contributes to the monotony of the three Masses taken together is Davidson's key choices -- of the eight movements in Masses V and VI, six are in the same key, and four of Mass IV's six movements are in the same key. Along with the predominantly slow tempos and lack of variety of choral textures, the tonal uniformity gives the three Masses a monochromatic sameness. The Lord's Prayer is more successful, with more conventionally diverse textures, counterpoint, and harmonic fluidity.
William Thomas McKinley's Mauern, for chorus and clarinet, is an altogether more professional and effective work. His eclectic harmonic language and his vocal writing are meaningfully expressive, and his skillful deployment of solos and smaller ensembles creates a sense of drama. The clarinet part is integral to the structure of the piece, rather than being merely decorative. The Slovak Philharmonic Choir, directed by Kirk Trevor, performs bravely, and in the McKinley, it sounds formidable. Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, English hornist Susan de Camp, oboist Michal Sintâl, and bassoonist Stanislav Bicâk play the virtuosic lines with high energy and commitment.