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 Recording of the Week  American choral works from Stephen Layton and Polyphony

With the USA having just celebrated Independence Day, it seems fitting that this week it should be American composers in the spotlight – specifically, mid-20th-century composers of choral music. Stephen Layton's chamber choir Polyphony are one of the yardsticks against which today's choral music-making is measured, and their latest disc features a varied mix of works from four composers – Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson.

Randall who? Although far from obscure, It's probably fair to say that, outside of North America at least, the last name on this list is rather less well-known than the other three. Based on the two works of his that book-end this album, I think this is rather an injustice. The first, Alleluia, is utterly exquisite. Written in 1940, it was initially a celebratory commission that could under other circumstances have flowered into a boisterous and upbeat work – but its eventual form was strongly influenced by the sobering news from Europe of the fall of Paris. The result is simplicity itself – merely the single word 'Alleluia' repeated over and over again by the choir in rich late-Romantic harmony. Thompson's part-writing is absolutely mesmerising, and it's really testament to the choir's balance and sensitivity that all the inner parts of the piece come through clearly and naturally.

Stephen Layton
Stephen Layton

Aaron Copland – surely not known as a choral writer – is represented on this disc by four early motets that offer a fascinating glimpse of his development as a composer. He himself was ambivalent about their publication (some time after his musical voice, and his reputation, had become established), feeling that they didn't truly show the style he was later to develop. He was right; they don't. Indeed, on a blind listening, Copland's would have been the last name to spring to my mind as a possible composer. But these are far more than mere exercises – Copland's originality, if not yet his mature style, is very much on display.

Perhaps the "main" work featured here is Bernstein's rarely-heard Missa Brevis – in fact a reworking and expansion of some atmospheric incidental music originally written to accompany a play about Joan of Arc. Bernstein's medieval-tinged choruses led to a suggestion by Robert Shaw that he refashion them into a Mass setting, which he duly did – incorporating peals of tubular bells and other percussion at key moments in a way often reminiscent of the later Chichester Psalms.

If there's a single piece of music that comes to mind when one hears the phrase "American choral music", it is surely Barber's Agnus Dei. It's difficult to hear this piece "afresh", since it is so widely-heard that it almost seems a musical cliché – so although Polyphony's bittersweet performance of it is everything one could wish for and more, I'm actually going to take the opportunity to shift the spotlight onto two of his other works. The darkness of mid-winter and the re-emergence of life through the Christmas story are expertly depicted in Laurie Lee's Twelfth Night, and Barber's musical response to it is nothing short of magical – the journey from freezing darkness into light is palpable, and Polyphony's crisp diction is particularly effective.

Finally, a miniature that really isn't heard often enough: Let down the bars, O Death. Although Emily Dickinson's text is only two verses long and Barber's setting well short of three minutes – even at the unusually slow tempo chosen by Layton – I find this one of his finest compositions. A restrained, sober and avowedly secular meditation on human mortality, it's a largely homophonic and chordal piece that in its understated beauty far outstrips Barber's own self-deprecating description of it as "[a] little chorus [...] quite good; it will be alright for someone's funeral." True enough, as Barber pre-selected it for his own in 1981 – so I suspect he knew its true worth more than his comment would suggest.

If ever anyone was under the misapprehension that American choral music begins and ends with the Agnus Dei, this disc is the perfect riposte. A delightful selection, beautifully performed. Musically speaking, the United States is doing rather well for a country only 239 years old!

American Polyphony

Polyphony, Stephen Layton

Available Format: CD