Review by David Layton.
The 2016 holiday season brings us a new release by Brevitas, a Utah vocal ensemble directed by Matthew D. Nielsen. Nowell Sing We is their second album, and their first dedicated to Christmas repertoire. Nielsen has curated an excellent program, combining familiar favorites with the new and unexpected, focusing on repertoire of the last 30 years.
Lending its title to the album, English composer Gabriel Jackson’s setting of “Nowell Sing We” is perhaps the thematic and stylistic heart of the album, as well as one of its standout tracks. A choral refrain alternates with unison verses on the Middle English macaronic text, painting a medieval miniature of the birth of Christ. All throughout, the irregular rhythms rush and halt, sway and flit, Jackson’s laconic setting always serving to emphasize the rhythm inherent in the text. Brevitas shines in this performance, with sparkling precision and resonant, expertly blended tone.
The theme of song and dance (even dancing song!) is echoed in several other pieces. Opening the program is a set of three carols with the same jubilant, rhythmic energy. “What Cheer?” by William Walton, and Stephen Landau’s 7/8 arrangement of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley are followed by David Wilcocks’ arrangement of the beloved “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” Later in the program we are treated to “Gaudete” arranged by Karl Jenkins, “I Saw Three Ships,” in an arrangement by German composer Wolfram Buchenberg, and Steven Barnett’s arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” each dancing in its own way in Christmas missionary zeal.
As with most of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s work, in his setting of “Bogoroditse Djevo,” the Church Slavonic ‘Hail Mary’ text, the words and the rhythms are vitally linked. Just as with the Jackson “Nowell,” the word-rhythms propel the listener forward, sometimes hushed and urgent, then gloriously, ecstatically joyous. The piece’s tiny footprint (only about a minute in length) belies its difficulty. But Brevitas, while occasionally tripped up by the Church Slavonic text, still presents a polished, nuanced performance that is among the best I have heard. The tempo neither rushes nor drags, and the tone resonates with both brightness and warmth.
The dancing, rhythmic pieces in the program are contrasted with a selection of works that explore the more contemplative side of the Christmas message.
The texts of “A Spotless Rose,” from Paul Mealor’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, and Jan Sandström’s reinterpretation of the Praetorius “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” are two English versions of the same 16th– century German carol, and both musical settings use rich, lush textures to evoke the imagery that a rose in winter inspires. Mealor’s musical lines climb gently upward as if to conjure the tender growing plant, even as they are supported by a broad, chordal base that seems to depict an extensive, supporting root system. The voices grow and expand until they explode into a soaring angel’s song. While Mealor’s “Spotless Rose” may have been inspired by this blooming rose imagery, Sandström’s “Lo, How a Rose” evokes a more wintery landscape. The familiar chorale is slowed down and juxtaposed with atmospheric cluster chords that swirl and shift, bringing to mind snowdrifts and bright, cold, windy landscapes. This fiendishly difficult piece receives an excellent performance by Brevitas. Nielsen achieves a delicate balance in keeping the solo choir present, never fading into the sustained background.
Winter imagery also makes an appearance in Paul Halley’s setting of Samuel Longfellow’s ”Tis Winter Now,” and in an arrangement of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis. As Longfellow’s text takes us from the forbidding cold of the winter landscape into the warmth and light of a home full of the love of God, so Nielsen gives Halley’s setting a sensitive treatment that evokes both, taking the choral color from spare and stinging to warm and full. “In the Bleak Winter” opens with a rich, mournful mezzo-soprano solo with delicately bleak piano accompaniment. As the choir enters, swirling in a snowstorm, we feel the loneliness of Christ in the role of a homeless stranger, before ultimately ending with Rosetti’s poignant resolve to “[do] what I can … Give my heart.”
Rounding out the program are two Latin pieces: Palestrina’s “Hodie Christus Natus Est,” and “Serenity,” by Ola Gjeilo. “Serenity” features a solo cello (Catherine Willey) accompanied by the choir on the O Magnum Mysterium text, and provides a peaceful coda to an engaging album full of skilled, polished performances. Nowell Sing We is a welcome addition to the Christmas library of any choral music aficionado.
To learn more about Brevitas and to purchase the CD, visit http://brevitaschoir.com/recordings/