Life And Breath: Choral Works By Rene Clausen

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CLAUSEN All That Hath Life and Breath, Praise Ye the Lord. O magnum mysterium. The Tyger. The Lamb. Mass for Double Choir. Magnificat. Prayer. O vos omnes. A New Creation: Set me a seal Charles Bruffy, cond; Kansas City Chorale CHANDOS 5105 (SACD 62:25)

René Clausen has been the director of the famed Concordia Choir of Concordia College in Morehead, Minnesota, for more than 25 years. He is best known to the public as the artistic director of the annually broadcast Concordia Christmas concerts, and in choral circles as an outstanding teacher and conductor. He is also a popular composer, writing for his own ensembles as well as on commissions from other choral organizations. Despite this, I had until recently steered clear of Clausen’s compositions, as early contacts had left me with an impression of a technically accomplished but prosaic prettiness that I do not find particularly interesting. However, Eternal Rest, the second disc that Charles Bruffy and his chorales recorded for Chandos, includes a performance of Clausen’s In pace that suggested I might be missing something. And indeed I have been; a number of the works included on this SACD, Life and Breath, exhibit a compelling harmonic and contrapuntal sophistication, reminiscent of the music of Eric Whitacre, though with less insistent (and ecstatic) dissonances.

The centerpiece of the release is Clausen’s Mass for Double Choir, written in 2011for Bruffy and his two chorales in Kansas City and Phoenix. It is here recorded by an augmented Kansas City Chorale, boasting 31 rather than the usual 24 singers. I suspect that this Mass, the composer’s first, may have been inspired by the Frank Martin masterpiece. If it was, Clausen quickly found his own way, creating a distinctive setting of rich but subtle coloration and great depth of feeling. There are few antiphonal effects for a work ostensibly for double chorus, but the text—or most of it, as Clausen has made some odd, assumedly musically dictated, word and phrase excisions—has been set with skill, clarity, economy, and more than a little imagination. The Mass is the most challenging and substantial work on the program, but other recent pieces like the restlessly inward O magnum mysterium and the Prayer on a text by Mother Theresa—achingly beautiful but never mawkish—further demonstrate the composer’s expressive growth.

There are a few quibbles. The clever Blake settings, The Tyger and The Lamb, provide welcome contrast to the liturgical works, but Clausen never really invites us below the surface of Blake’s vision into either the darkness or the wonder. A couple of the earliest works include quotes of Lutheran chorales, which, while imaginatively done, now seem a little passé. Finally, “Set Me a Seal” from Clausen’s 1989 cantata A New Creation sails dangerously close to the shoals of preciousness. It is, however, his most popular work, so its inclusion is inevitable, and it serves reasonably well as an encore/benediction to the program that precedes it.

The Kansas City Chorale—in conjunction with its sister group, which actually got the first release—is the first American chorus to record with English label Chandos. It is not hard to hear why it was accorded this honor. It offers some of the finest a cappella singing to be heard on disc, on a par with the best of Great Britain’s vaunted choruses, and is Chandos’s answer to Hyperion’s similarly thrilling Polyphony. Tuning is impeccable, and blend is faultless, though I might have liked an additional bass in the balance. Diction is clear and tone varies easily by mood, though projection is slightly restrained, as is Bruffy’s way. The sound and artistry are exemplary. Many a soprano section I’ve heard on disc lately could take a lesson from this choir’s superb singers on how to negotiate leaping high notes. Chandos engineers have provided just enough distance and resonance to support blend while maintaining clarity, and in surround the choir is placed out in a believable space. To anyone who enjoys beautifully crafted, thought-provoking but accessible choral music, this release is most highly recommended.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHSA 5105

  • UPC: 095115510520

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: René Clausen

  • Conductor: Charles Bruffy

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Kansas City Chorale

  • Performer: Lindsey Lang, Matthew Gladden, Pamela Williamson, Rebecca Lloyd, Sarah Tannehill