Various: American Polyphony (CD Review - Sinfini Music, 2015)

Centuries of puritanical preaching and religious dogma have worked to supress the eternal human drive to draw enjoyment from matters spiritual. Polyphony and Stephen Layton offer the strongest possible case for approaching the tremendous and the mysterious, however it may be defined, with hearts and minds open to the deepest pleasure.

Their latest album, comprising sacred and ‘spiritual’ choral works by four American composers of the last century, carries a sustaining charge of sensuous beauty, so strong as to shock the system into a state of deep listening. Perhaps shock is the wrong word, although anything that calls for absolute attention in a world of countless digital distractions and competing calls on our time certainly sets down a challenge.

Layton and his singers share a vision of perfection in choral singing and have discovered the alchemical process to realise it in performance. Listen to Randall Thompson’s Fare Well, for instance, a product of the mid-1970s, musically not of its time yet timeless in its grace and stillness. English is woefully short of words to describe the different qualities of silence and near-silence that arise and fall during the work’s closing section.

Many associate Samuel Barber’s Adagio, originally written for string quartet, with sadness, even heartbreak. The composer’s own setting of the work to words from the Latin Mass suggests something other, more urgent prayer for peace than maudlin dirge for the dead. His Agnus Dei deserves a performance stripped of sentimentality. Polyphony’s spacious reading steers an ideal middle path between romantic excess and aloof austerity, voicing the music with intense tonal warmth and cultivating ecstasy as the piece moves towards its central climax.

I can only invite you to stay present with this wonderful recording and submit to sustained immersion in its sublime soundworld.

Reviewed by Andrew Stewart