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On the Tragedy and Realities of War


Clear Voices in the Dark Skylark Vocal Ensemble/Matthew Guard Sono Luminus DSL-92278 Total Time:  43:23 Recording:   ****/**** Performance: ****/****


In this new release, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble presents a sort of concept album concert that provides a bit of meditation and commentary on the tragedy of war.  Here, their director Matthew Guard has assembled a program that juxtaposes musical vignettes from the American Civil War with one of the most difficult works in the acapella choral repertoire, Francis Poulenc’s Figure Humaine.

Using texts from Paul Eluard’s poetry collection Poesie et Verite, Poulenc’s eight-movement cantata is a meditation on the reality of war, oppression, and the cry for liberty.  The piece was composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France.  It is considered one of the composer’s finest achievements.  The entire piece runs just around twenty-minutes.  In this performance, the movements alternate with choral settings of American Civil War songs.  They provide a more immediate cushion that introduces some of the same thematic ideas of the Poulenc movements and are intended to enhance the textual content of Eluard’s poetry.  Poulenc’s musical language shifts from rather simple statements to complex, dense harmonies that have a somewhat ancient/modern quality.  There is a great deal of nuance needed in these, often brief, statements requiring careful intonation and articulation.  Set for double mixed choir, often there are 12 different lines that move independently.  Sometimes the setting provides interesting color shifts from men’s voices to women’s voices as both face the unfolding horrors of war. 

The American works feature arrangements by Ron Jeffers (“Johnny has gone for a soldier”; Workin’ for the dawn of peace”), Alice Parker (“Johnny, I Hardly Knew Thee”, written for the Robert Shaw Chorale), and Guard (including settings of “Abide With Me” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).  The settings include several that feature moments for solo voices to shine.  This they do in often stunning ways that add a personal, and somewhat emotional connection to the texts. 

The performances throughout are quite impressive.  The choir’s overall sound blends quite well in the dense harmonic moments of the Poulenc while also shifting stylistically for the American text settings where they often take on a personal connection to the music.  The choir has been beautifully captured in the church setting here which adds an additional reverential quality to the performance.  At first, before listening to the album, one might be a bit skeptical of splitting out the Poulenc in this way.  By alternating the two wars and styles here, it adds to the intensity of the Poulenc.  The American pieces might also be a bit much tacked on as one section of the program.  This way, both styles, texts, and thematic focus is better highlighted and provides a moving and intelligent listening experience.  Of course, listeners can also simply program just the Poulenc, or the American numbers together for listening.  But there is something to be said for the intelligent approach to the program as a whole inviting the listener to give the approach a chance. 

In addition to the gorgeous choral sound captured in Sono Luminus’ recording, the accompanying booklet is also a welcome addition.  Complete texts (and translations for the Poulenc) are included here.  Each selection and movement also includes a brief bit of information about it that further enhances the listening experience as it informs about the music and its intent.  Though a bit short in its play time, Clear Voices in the Dark will likely have many hitting repeat to experience this engaging, stunningly-recorded program.  Highly Recommended!



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