Alburnum is a record of contemporary American art song from baritone Brian Mulligan (Torontonians may remember him as Enrico in the COC’s 2013 Lucia di Lammermoor) and pianist Timothy Long. There are two substantial pieces; each about 26 minutes long. The first is Walden by Gregory Spears and it sets four prose extracts from Thoreau’s work with an extremely minimalist piano accompaniment. I’m not really sure about turning prose into song and I’m not a huge Thoreau fan. Perhaps if I were I would have found this more interesting. It’s pleasant enough; it’s tonal and somewhat melodic and Mulligan has a pleasant voice but I wasn’t excited.
The Crossing must be one of North America’s most interesting and accomplished choirs. They specialise in difficult contemporary music that is a million miles away from most of the new music that is being composed for the (lucrative) amateur choir market. Their latest CD; The Tower and the Garden, is due for release on the Navona label on February 12th. I really like it.
There are three pieces on the disk. The first is an a cappella setting of Walt Whitman’s A Child Said, What is the Grass? by Tolvo Tuley. It’s worth reading the text in advance because this piece builds up in layers like renaissance polyphony or, perhaps more aptly, a piece by John Tavener. There are certainly echoes of the Greek Orthodox tradition here but only echoes. What really strikes is that the tension that keeps building and really doesn’t resolve. It’s as uncomfortable and enigmatic as Whitman’s answer to the child’s question; “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”. Throughout the choir display an astonishing control of textures and dynamics.