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Review: Hearing the light

Grammy's best choral performance nominations

By Porter Anderson

Naxos' Antoni Wit recording of Krzysztof Penderecki's "A Polish Requiem" released in January 2005.



Nominees for 2006 Best Choral Performance Grammy

  • Bernstein: 'Mass' (Harmonia Mundi)
  • Lauridsen: 'Lux Aeterna' (Hyperion)
  • Penderecki: 'A Polish Requiem' (Naxos)
  • Bolcom: 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (Naxos)
  • Schoenberg: Accentus (Naive)

    The 48th annual Grammy Awards show airs live at 8 p.m. ET on February 8.

    Krzysztof Penderecki
    Morten Lauridsen

    ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "Eternal light" sounds serenely stable, doesn't it? And in the liturgy of the traditional Requiem, or Mass for the dead, it's usually just that.

    But thanks to some enlightened Grammy nominations, two recordings prove that "Lux aeterna" may be both an unquenchable flame and an icy ray, both beautiful.

    Amid the five nominees for best choral performance this time around are Krzysztof Penderecki's 1993 "A Polish Requiem" and Morten Lauridsen's 1997 "Lux Aeterna." These two CDs offer a night-and-day demonstration of the stunning range of the musical vocabulary of our time.

  • The American Lauridsen turns 63 next month, a hero among those who know the profound comfort of hearing a good ensemble deliver his heart-scrubbing chords. Modern, yes: Lauridsen has no fear of a good tone cluster and plays melody lines off against each other with late-20th-century edge. But dissonance for him is fleeting. And overall, he delivers bouts of light and shade that dapple the senses with a grace that the biblical "multitude of the heavenly host" might envy.
  • Poland's Penderecki is 10 years Lauridsen's elder, at 73 a giant among world composers. His muses are often political, his conscience is unrelenting and his music is some of the most radiantly terrifying you'll ever hear. In Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," some of the most disturbing moments of doubt -- self- and otherwise -- were played out to bits of music by this man who also wrote the 1960 "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima."
  • Starting with 'Tears'

    Penderecki's "A Polish Requiem" came together over 13 years. The "Lacrimosa" ("Ah! That day of tears and mourning!") was written in 1980 in tribute to Lech Walesa and Solidarity and to commemorate the deaths of dockworkers during 1970 clashes with authorities. And the 1984 "Dies Irae" ("The day of wrath, that dreadful day / Shall all the world in ashes lay") marked the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis.

    In this recording from Naxos -- which leads other labels this year with 15 classical Grammy nominations -- Penderecki's massive orchestrations and choral gymnastics are led by Antoni Wit. The Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra members sound as if they'd waited all their lives to perform this frightening, devastating music.

    In fact, one of the most visceral connections you can make with the nightmares of Europe's last century is to hear this music. In it, you feel -- as if you could touch it -- the real darkness of the worst of communism and Nazism. These are the sounds of hearts suffering the Kafka-chill of police-state oppression.

    Take the "Dies Irae," generally a hymn or chant for the dead. As the third movement in "A Polish Requiem," it's nobody's Gregorian hand-wringer. Penderecki's strings slash and claw at the air as the tenors, joined by the sopranos, bellow out a fearsome warning of "that judge whose searching light / Brings thought and word and deed to light." Those cliff-face glissandi, or cascading harmonies, are a Penderecki trademark.

    The "Mors stupebit" sequence opens with alto Jadwiga Rappé's despairing "Death is struck and nature quaking." It gives way to bells of alarm and stabbing military percussion under the hair-raising mayday of the choir's impassioned "Nothing unavenged remaineth." This is an Armageddon.

    Penderecki's work isn't always liturgical, although much of his choral work is, including "The Passion of St. Luke" and "Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ." In his "Requiem," by the time he reaches the communion segment, "Lux aeterna," he's working in a range of nerve-scraping strings deployed by Gyorgy Ligeti, whose own "Lux aeterna" is heard in the soundtrack of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

    "I am seized with fear and trembling," the choir insists in a harrowing "Libera me, Domine" that starts in shadowy sotto voce and quickly vaults into soprano Izabella Klosinska's near-screams of panicked supplication.

    This two-CD set is fronted by the stained glass wonder of the 1940 "Faces" of artist Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov. Look carefully and the Klee-like mosaic resolves into dark eyes, a blank stare and a demonic-alien visage in a hieroglyphic jungle. And in the chiming, crowded crescendos of the final "Free the souls," the man from Debica no longer is beseeching any deity: His choir is simply demanding liberation from his homeland's 20th-century agonies.

    Brighter 'light'

    Hyperion's Polyphony performance of Morten Lauridsen's "Lux aeterna" released in February 2005.

    Polyphony is the choral ensemble formed in 1986 in Cambridge and still led by London-based conductor Stephen Layton. Supported by the Britten Sinfonia, these singers charge into the bounding beauty of the fourth movement of Lauridsen's "Lux aeterna" with such happy, generous power that you'll almost feel guilty listening to it here in Penderecki's world.

    Born in Colfax, Washington, and raised in Portland, Oregon, Lauridsen seems never to have lost the spaciousness he knew as a young forest service lookout-tower fireman near Mount St. Helens. The "Agnus Dei" that closes this work just keeps opening into range after range of "alleluia!" -- the choir's voices spill over each other like springwater.

    "Lux aeterna" is not, in fact, a Requiem, although parts of the Mass' liturgy are at the beginning and end. Performed without breaks between its five sections, the piece ripples with counterpoint and lapping polyphony, in which parts of the chorus answer each other.

    And Hyperion has bundled this liturgical work with the superb secular "Madrigali," which Lauridsen subtitles "Six 'Fire Songs' on Italian Renaissance Poems." These are songs of burning love, exotically phrased. In "Io piango" ("I weep ... since I can find no other remedy for the fire"), the density of frustration catapults the chorus into a racing breadth of urgency.

    Far less buoyant than the "Lux aeterna," this a capella sequence makes it clear what a ranging and subtle sound-colorist Lauridsen has become.

    Both Hyperion and Naxos might want to take a lead from Harmonia Mundi and reconsider their packaging. The old crack 'n' crumble plastic CD cases can be so handsomely superceded by a box-and-booklet approach to liner notes, fast becoming a hallmark of Harmonia's quality.

    Music this good deserves considered, distinctive wrapping. And the Grammy nominators deserve commendation for bridging so dramatically the work of two of the most compelling choral-work composers alive today.

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