LAVISTA Missa brevis. Stabat Mater. MACMILLAN Sun-Dogs Carmen-Helena Téllez, cond; Contemporary Vocal Ens LAMC 2012 (68:50)
The booklet notes to this release intriguingly link Mexican composer Mario Lavistas’s Missa brevis ad Consolationis Dominum Nostrum (to give it its full title, composed 1994-1995) to composers as diverse as Machaut, Josquin, Debussy, and Cage. It is only when one actually hears the music that this begins to make sense. Techniques from the earlier composers are mapped onto Lavista’s own dense style in a virtuosic manner. The Sanctus of the Misa brevis finds “pure” (or pure-ish) intervals emerging out of complex simultaneities. That the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble is clearly a class act helps enormously. The balancing of the choir is superb, with polyphonic strands easy to follow.
The Stabat Mater (2006) is a slow, lamenting setting for choir that seems to exist in a floating place above the temporal. Lavista laves large pitch spaces between his low basses and ultra-high sopranos, a void that seems to viscerally represent Mary’s suffering. A group of cellos (unnamed as far as I can see) provides a haunting commentary; the gentle reintroduction of voices after a period of cello ruminations is most effective and is of the utmost delicacy (all credit to the sopranos of the ensemble for their breath control in difficult circumstances here). Memorable, if not unique, textures add up to a powerful effect, especially when underpinned by a drone. Readers who wish to explore Lavista’s music further should perhaps head in the direction of the Complete String Quartets on Toccata Classics, reviewed by William Zagorski in Fanfare 35:2; it also turned up in his Want List.
James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs (2006) is a collaboration with poet Michael Symmons Roberts (librettist of MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice). Dedicated to the Dominican Order, the multiple layers of interpretations that can be gleaned from the text could themselves be the subject of much discussion. MacMillan’s writing uses a large variety of effects (including whispering and whistling), but always to the good of the piece. His compositional virtuosity in this respect equates him with the dearly missed Jonathan Harvey in my mind. The sheer depth of sound to some of the choral writing is beautiful, especially with a choir that sounds as good as this one. Carmen-Helena Téllez is clearly a choral conductor of distinction, as the textures seem to be impeccably managed (she has recently been appointed Professor of Conducting at Notre Dame). Although the Lavista pieces take up the bulk of the disc (over 50 minutes of it), it is MacMillan’s piece that truly impresses (itself an achievement given the standard of Lavista’s music). The sheer wall of choral sound of the final movement, “If you turn down the offerings,” is remarkable. Well worth exploring. Colin Clarke