Lauridsen: Lux aeterna (CD Review - Classics, 2005)

It would be difficult today to be a choral singer and not be familiar with at least one or two works by American composer Morten Lauridsen, whose sumptuously mellifluous creations (I'm thinking especially of O magnum mysterium and Lux aeterna) are beloved by choirs for their eminently singable lines and vibrant harmonic structures that tend to envelop the whole ensemble in soul-satisfying resonance. Audiences love it too, for the varied visceral and emotional effects that flow from music that can warmly, gently caress or fill even the largest space with a crescendo of shimmering sound. Of course, within that aura of happy familiarity there's also a certain sameness bordering on the formulaic–added seconds and sixths, melodic rising fourths and falling minor thirds, stretches of unresolved harmony built on second-inversion chords, full-bodied, organ-like textures that often are voiced at the lower end to give prominence to the "fifth"–that both satisfies and eventually cries out for new ideas.

On this program we do hear some new–or at least different–ideas, exemplified in the earlier (1987) set of Madrigali, subtitled "Six 'Fire Songs' on Italian Renaissance Poems". Here Lauridsen successfully and with a compelling variety of stylistic devices elucidates his texts and illustrates the "symbolic image of flames, burning, and fire" that captivated and inspired him as he initially read the poems. Although his later harmonic/melodic mannerisms occasionally appear, for the most part these madrigals show Lauridsen more adventurous, more technically and expressively daring. His Italian madrigalist references–including Gesualdo and Monteverdi–make themselves known, usually in subtle ways but sometimes more overtly, and often within a context of craggy textures, luscious dissonances, sudden tempo changes, and varied articulation and dynamic effects, but always expressed through well-structured vocal lines. This is compelling and challenging music that deserves wider performance.

The world-class ensemble Polyphony has made many first-rate recordings, and this is another–and it will be an immediate acquisition for this composer's growing legions of fans. Of course, the main draw will be the Lux aeterna, plus the three other Latin pieces. There's no real question regarding the singers' technical competence and interpretive mastery of this music, nor is there any doubt as to the immediate listener-appeal of all of these works. My only disappointment was in the oft-performed and recorded O magnum mysterium, which director Stephen Layton conducts with exceptional slowness (a drag on the piece's essential momentum) and which the recording compromises with strangely awkward balances among the various voice parts and harshness in the louder tutti sections. But don't let that deter you: if you love choral music, Lauridsen's work is required listening.


David Vernier

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