CD Review: New York Polyphony makes delight out of despair

New York Polyphony
Musical Toronto

By John Terauds

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Renaissance polyphony is the next best thing to plainsong for a deeply meditative choral experience. In the case of this excellent new album from this unaccompanied male vocal quartet from Manhattan, one gets an entrancing dose of both.

The five-year-old quartet celebrates its first major-label album with a collection of rarely performed Franco-Belgian Renaissance sacred treats from the end of the 15th and the first half of the 16th centuries, including the first known recording of a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (traditionally sung during Holy Week, just before Easter) by Thomas Crecquillon, who died in 1557.

Countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Geoffrey Silver, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips achieve an ideal balance that allows them to move as one through the intricately layered music, while allowing the curious ear enough space to pick out the individual voices.

The pacing is smooth, deliberate, with just enough air between musical statements and acoustical reverberation in the recording to allow each piece to sit, almost motionless, like clouds of incense caught in rays of sunlight.

Like the Lamentations, the rest of the disc is no invitation to frivolity. The music collected here was intended to comfort those who mourn (the Missa Pro Defunctis, in one of its earliest polyphonic settings, by Antoine Brumel, who died in 1515) and those looking to meditate on matters of sin and faith.

Brumel uses traditional plainsong chant to open each section of his Mass for the Dead, so these boys have added a plainsong setting of “In Paradisum” to balance the album.

The disc closes with a gorgeous, plainsong-inspired new work, Ma fin est mon commencement (My End is My Beginning), commissioned in 2009 from American composer Jackson Hill.