Various: American Polyphony (CD Review - The New Zealand Herald, 2015)

* * * * *  5 Stars

Some Aucklanders have had the pleasure of experiencing the artistry of Stephen Layton in person when he conducted Bach's Bach's Mass in B minor and St John Passion with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2012 and 2014.

Those familiar with the many CDs featuring Layton with his chamber choir, Polyphony, were not disappointed.

Polyphony's celebration of Arvo Part's 80th birthday was one of the outstanding releases of last year. In just one hour we were given almost half a century of the Estonian composer's music, including the premiere, by turns entrancing and enthralling, of his recent Virgencita. The CD's stark, minimal packaging (severe type on white background) offered no hint of the beauties and passions within.

The same is true with the choir's latest collection of 20th-century American choral music by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson.

Yet could one imagine four composers for whom communication, often at the most personal and emotional level, was more important?

Meurig Bowen's incisive booklet essay makes much of Samuel Barber, revealing a man who was well-connected vocally: his aunt was the contralto Louise Homer, his partner Gian Carlo Menotti the Puccini of his times and Barber himself was an able baritone.

The vibrant intensities of Barber's Agnus Dei, reworked from his Adagio for strings, are beautifully realised; as are the composer's later chorus settings, including an exquisitely sculpted response to Emily Dickinson's Let down the bars, O death.

Aaron Copland's Four Motets are comparatively early works and the choir effortlessly catches the almost rollicking joyousness of Sing ye praises tour king.

A Missa Brevis by Leonard Bernstein is far from the composer's very theatrical Mass of 1971.

Reworked in 1988 from discarded incidental music, this comparatively modest score still allows for a blaze of pealing chimes from percussionist Robert Millett in its Gloria as well as poignant solos from countertenor Christopher Lowrey.

Randall Thompson's exultant Alleluia opens the set and, an hour later, Layton and his musicians do full elegiac justice to the composer's Fare Well, giving glorious voice to the poetry of Walter de la Mare.

Verdict: "English chamber choir in superb form in classic American repertoire."

By William Dart

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