Birds of the Psalms
Cappella Clausura/Amelia LeClair
Navona Records 6176
Total Time: 51:50
This beautiful new release of choral music features Capella Clausura. Amelia LeClair founded the ensemble in 2004 with one of its goals to promote the work of women composers. For this new release, LeClair has focused on music inspired by Biblical psalms. The album takes its title from a new work by Patricia van Ness which opens the album.
Ness’s Birds of the Psalms is a collection of 10 psalm settings that have avian imagery and this idea of the divine depicted by a bird, or a bird protected by the divine. Dove imagery is a common component of the ancient Biblical texts in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Among them is this image of the sheltering bird which is a common theme in six of the texts used here. Her music here takes its inspiration as well from ancient church modes and the more melismatic settings upon which harmonies themselves occur naturally across the linear presentation of the text. This might make the words themselves more difficult to discern at times, but it creates a rather rich wash of sound. There is some nice word painting along the way (for example on “quakes” in the Psalm 55 setting). The music itself overall bears close resemblance to Morten Lauridsen’s style. Each movement helps highlight different voices creating a nice variety. The male vocal setting of Psalm 17 adds a deep, rich plea to the text that becomes more angelic once the female voices are then added (the female voices get a similar chance in the setting of Psalm 61). In the following setting of Psalm 57, the Latin text adds a further ancient feel. The vocal lines as well are written in a late Medieval quality with nice imitation occurring that can bring us to some quite stunning dissonances that add an extra emotional punch. Things move along a bit more in the seventh movement’s setting of Psalm 148 with its creeping things. It requires some fun effects as well which add some challenge to the music and a bit of necessary energy.
The program is filled out with beautiful renditions of Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Kiev Chant, “Svete Tihiy”, and two selections from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (“Blagoslovi, dushe moya” and “Blazhen muzh”). These give us samples of the rich Eastern Orthodox church styles explored by these composers. A couple of classic English anthems also appear. First is Purcell’s brief “Hear My Prayer” followed by Weelke’s “When David Heard”. The program closes with a setting by an Eastern Roman abbess, one of the first female medieval composers, Kassia (810-856) allowing us a window into the very beginnings of this choral tradition explored fittingly on this album.
The album was recorded at the groups May 2016 concerts in the Boston area. Audience noise is quite minimized apart from applause at the end of the Ness and the final work. The church settings lend a sense of the sort of rich sound that can be attained in these spaces, always hard to capture in a recording but Navona’s engineers have managed to give the listener a real sense of sitting in the midst of a cathedral to wallow in the gorgeous music presented here.