Whitacre: Cloudburst (CD Review - BBC Radio 3, 2006)

Right. Stop making the coffee: leave the washing for two minutes, muzzle your children, pull over to the side of the road and listen to this.

Whitacre – I thank You God

This is the music of Eric Whitacre and if you haven’t heard about him you’re surely about to in a big way and there could be no better place to start than a new recording entitled CLOUDBURST dedicated entirely to his choral works, sung by Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton.

Whitacre was born in 1970 north of San Francisco.  His musical education was patchy; he played in a marching band, synth in a techno-pop band and then got tricked into joining the choir (‘there were a lot of cute girls in the soprano section’) which changed his life.  And why not?

There’s nothing technically new about Whitacre’s writing. There’s more than a sniff of the new world of Aaron Copland about him and you can hear the consecutive chording of a man writing basic stuff at the piano.

But what hits you straight between the eyes is the honesty, optimism and sheer belief that passes any pretension. This is music that can actually make you smile if you open yourself up to it!

That doesn’t stop him exploring darker moods.  Here’s the opening of ‘When David heard that Absalom was slain’, the terrible lament of a man for his dead child.

Whitacre – When David heard

And that’s only the beginning. Over the next 10 minutes Whitacre presents various grief-inspired motifs (reminding one strongly of Arvo Pärt) which he then combines to an incredible climax. And this is perhaps Whitacre’s achievement - his superlative pacing, to which you can add a love of and commitment to words and an understanding of consonance, the whole infused by that incredible belief in his idea, without any angst over whether someone somewhere else might have used the style before.

That’s the music but it’s just notes on the page without a matching performance and this it utterly receives from Polyphony and conductor Stephen Layton. You might make the mistake of thinking that the music was somehow simple to perform but its requirements are considerable.  Note clusters don’t sing themselves, they require fine-tuning and the voices have to sing without vibrato for much of the time in exposed parts of their range. And Layton’s pacing is also excellent.

The previous four choirs reviewed today are bodies that sing together regularly with a regular line-up, the two European ones generously funded.  Like many British vocal ensembles Polyphony’s membership is fluid and what’s more this whole project was put together from scratch (rehearsal and recording) in 3 days: unimaginable anywhere outside this island though fairly standard over here. Layton has assembled a wonderful mix of London’s very finest and (more to the point) most suitable singers for this music fronted by Elin Manahan Thomas, Julia Doyle and Gracie Davidson among others on soprano. Credit also to producer Adrian Peacock who has done a great job.

This is a staggering disc and a hugely attractive one that you will want to play to your friends. As a final ‘amuse-bouche’ enjoy the end of the poem ‘Sleep’ and then go and buy yourself the disc.

Whitacre - Sleep

Robert Hollingworth

See Recording Details