Album review: Solid Passiontide vision from New York Polyphony

Every once in a while one comes across with a musical album of unusual appeal and striking intensity. Sometimes the performances recorded are simply extraordinary, whereas on other occasions it comes down to innovating programming and contextualisation. Or it may be all about sensitive recording, combined with top class engineering.

In case of New York Polyphony’s latest album And the sun darkened, all these parameters are wondrously aligned, yielding to one of the most intense musical experiences of 2021 so far. Subtitled Music for passiontide, the new BIS Records disc mixes a dazzling selection of Franco-Flemish polyphony with the music of Andrew Smith and Cyrillus Kreek into riveting playlist of vocal tableaux of exquisite beauty and craft.

The main piece of the album, Loyset Compère’s 1470s cycle of nine motets Officium de Cruce, is conceived as a reflective musical arch, based on the Hours of the Cross, a devotional service recalling the Passion of the Christ. A series of intense meditations, Officium de Cruce combines the particular and the universal, as well as the human and the divine into musical narrative of striking connectivity.

Performed with extraordinary focus and sensitivity by the members of the New York Polyphony, Compère’s cycle is clad in luminous vocal lines, woven together with spellbinding interconnectedness, with splendid attention to word-painting and contrapuntal detail. The overall dramaturgy of the nine motets is conceived with astounding craft for musical storytelling, resulting in an absolutely unforgettable experience.

Another example of compelling musical narrative comes in the guise of Andrew Smith’s twelve-minute Salme 55 (2014) for voices a cappella. Written for the New York Polyphony, the musical material for Salme 55 is derived from Notes for a Requiem (2011), Smith’s score for a theatrical work on the life of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa. As a standalone piece, Salme 55 is a fascinating fusion of Renaissance polyphony and contemporary sensibilities, somewhat akin to the madrigal style of Gavin Bryars, at least on a superficial level.

With narrative intensity similar to the Compère motet cycle, Smith’s vocal writing is tremendously intense, yet ever admirably sublime. Focused music for focused listeners (and performers), Salme 55 is a prayer of profound yearning, a plea for inner peace, perfectly in tune with our troubled pandemic-ridden times. Adorned by a terrific performance from the New York Polyphony, Salme 55 is a track for multiple instant repeats.

Begun in the 1920s, Cyrillus Kreek’s collection Taaveti laul (Psalms of David) is a veritable treasure chest among the twentieth century choral music, as his setting of Psalm 22 (1923) aptly testifies. A combination of distilled purity and compelling intensity, the performance recorded here perfectly captures the anguished spirit of the Biblical text, bridging Kreek’s musical dramaturgy seamlessly together with the settings of Smith and Compère.

No collection of Franco-Flemish polyphony can do without Josquin Desprez, the absolute master of the era. Published in 1504, Tu pauperum refugium is a fine example of the composer’s unique ability to clad prayers in the form of motets, perfectly balancing between delicate virtuosity and vivid communicativeness. A riveting performance, the little motet is an absolute gem.

In the album’s collection of prayers, two significant entries from Adrian Willaert, Pater noster and Ave Maria, both published in 1532, are included. In both cases, the fabulous intricacies of the settings reveal themselves gradually over repeated listenings, giving rise to a truly rewarding musical journey.

The collection is bookended by two utmost evocative settings, Compère’s Crux triumphans and Pierre de la Rue’s O salutaris hostia. Meditations of uplifting skill and craft, the opening and closing tracks reflect the passiontide hue of the album with their formidable presence, wholeheartedly endorsed by the utmost beauty of the New York Polyphony performance.

An album to cherish, And the sun darkened is an admirable realisation of a solid musical vision, one that speaks volumes even with the smallest musical gestures. A concept with longevity, the disc yearns for multiple repeats, with new layers brought forth upon each iteration.

New York Polyphony

Loyset Compère: Crux triumphans

Josquin Desprez: Tu pauperum refugium

Andrew Smith: Salme 55 (2014) for voices a cappella

Adrian Willaert: Pater Moster

Adrian Willaert: Ave Maria

Curillus Kreek: Taaveti laul 22 (1923) for voices a cappella

Loyset Compère: Officium de Cruce

Pierre de la Rue: O salutaris hostia

Recorded at Princeton Abbey, New Jersey in June 2018

BIS Records BIS-2277 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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