LAURIDSEN: Lux aeterna

Morton Lauridsen: Lux aeterna
Polyphony with Britten Sinfonia, Pauline Lowbury, leader, Stephen Layton, conductor.
Hyperion CDA67449 [CD]

The title piece, Lux aeterna (light eternal), a five-movement work by American composer Morton Lauridsen (b.1943), is intended to be an “intimate work of quiet serenity.” The composer’s quest for texts that express “hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations,” results in a free compilation from various liturgical observances or feasts: the Introit from the Requiem; select verses of the Te Deum, sung at the end of Matins on Sunday or in thanksgiving for a special blessing, interpolated with a verse from the Beatus vir (Ps. 111:4); verses from O nata lux, the Lauds hymn for the feast of the Transfiguration; Veni sancte spiritus, the sequence for Pentecost; and the Agnus Dei and Communio from the Mass for the Dead with an “Alleluia” tag added by the composer. Admittedly, the work is non-liturgical. Still, the fashioning of these texts causes the work to be viewed by some as a “Requiem” or quasi “German Requiem.” Indeed, it is neither a Requiem nor a Mass for the Dead, in spite of the opening and closing movements. As a meditation on “light eternal,” texts other than those from the Requiem could have been used. One need only read the Exsultet, which overflows with the symbols and imagery of “the Light” that conquers death, and which dispels darkness. Further, the theme of the texts used in the three inner movements is more Trinitarian (Te Deum = God the Father; O nata lux = God the Son; Veni sancte spiritus = God the Holy Spirit). Unfortunately, their importance and strength is reduced to the occurrence of the word “light” in their verse. That being said, the texts are not what the ear remembers in this work; it is the music. The words are merely the vehicle for the vocalists.
An emotionally charged work, the title itself causes the air to teem with monastic modalities and incense. Clearly educated in the manner and madrigalisms of the early masters, Lauridsen neither replicates nor imitates, but defines and speaks his own musical mind: a single recurring chord (D-major triad with an added E), that re-creates itself throughout the work, becoming “the harmonic symbol of the luminous.” A composer with the heart of a Humanist, who heeded Leopold Mozart’s counsel–to read poetry aloud in order to understand the lyricism of music–Lauridsen’s masterful lyricism is a result of his “passion for poetry.” The harmonic style, chromaticisms, dissonances and divisi writing reveal his contemporary soul. When looking at the work in its entirety, text and music, it appears to be more of a cycle, referencing a particular theme, than an extended motet. Composed for Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lux aeterna premiered 13 April 1997. The first recording of this work (RCM 19705) by the Master Chorale, while a solid performance, is surpassed by the intensity and passion offered by Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia.
Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems
(1987) stands in stark contrast to Lux aeterna. Inspired by the madrigals of Gesualdo and Monteverdi, Lauridsen effectively explores the darker, earthy terrains of human emotion. The listener again hears what may be somewhat of a hallmark for Lauridsen–the use of a single chord with an added second–as the unifying element within the work. In this case, it is a B-flat minor chord with an added C, which the composer calls the “fire-chord.” This collection of six Italian love poems is set in an extended “arch form,” climaxing with the fourth lament Io piango (I weep), which begins innocently enough in unison and moves to a tantalizing, biting dissonance on the word piango. This interplay between consonance and dissonance reaches its moment of torment and the apex of the “arch” on the phrase Sorte fiera e inaudita (what cruel, unheard-of-fate). Everything after that is falling motion. Within the vocal lines of these madrigali one can audibly “see” the “eye music” which Renaissance composers often used for the visual appeal, enjoyment and inspiration of the performer. The vocal ensemble Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton, navigates the harmonic complexities with ease and skill; what is difficult on the page, sounds effortless to the ear; Polyphony’s sense of ensemble is beyond reproach.
The concluding three motets, Ave Maria (1997), Ubi caritas et amor (1999), and O magnum mysterium (1994) return the listener to the spiritual plane. The Ave Maria is an indulgence in vocal sonorities cast in the double choir style of Venice. The vocal writing for the inner voices is particularly appealing. Ubi caritas, an antiphon for Maundy Thursday, states the chant tune in the sensuous rendering of the male chorus, which is ten ornamented with tone clusters, creating a tonal shimmer that would best be appreciated in the appropriate acoustical space. If when listening to the third motet, O magnum mysterium, one feels caught in a cycle of Lux aeterna, the ear has not deceived. O magnum mysterium, which sings with similar sonorities of the Lux aeterna, pre-dates Lauridsen’s contemplation of the larger work. This motet is the composer’s “affirmation of God’s grace to the meek… a quiet song of profound inner joy.” Extended melodic lines, arching suspensions, and singing dissonances best characterize these three motets.
The choral work of Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton, is solid and inspiring throughout the CD, but it is in the a capella performances where their true musicianship, impeccable intonation and sense of ensemble is most appreciated and at its best. They truly sing with one heart. The choral sound, for the most part, is warm and rich. At times however, the straight tones of the sopranos are rather piercing. One may reason that this as one of the drawbacks of hearing these works recorded as opposed to a live performance. The texture, sound and harmonic sensibilities of Lauridsen are at their best in a live performance. This music demands an acoustical space that is a performing partner, as with the choral tradition of Venice, where overtones spin their own galaxy of harmonies. Polyphony, Stephen Layton, Britten Sinfonia and Pauline Lowbury recorded this CD in 2003, along with the composer at the Temple Church in London. The only thing that is better than this recording is a live performance.
Geraldine M. Rohling