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Noteworthy CDs

Notable CDs | Five spiritually noteworthy new releases reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass

Style: Sacred works by 16th-century, 17th-century, and contemporary composers for 12 a cappella male voices.

Worldview: Traditional Christian liturgy, with detours into Judaism and Islam-friendly syncretism (Kamran Ince's "[Gloria] Everywhere").

Overall quality: The ethereal vocal refinement enhances the Judeo-Christian texts but exacerbates Ince's political correctness and the extent to which the opening of Douglas Cuomo's "Kyrie" sounds like the beginning of the Star Trek theme.

Theology

Style: Unplugged and full-band versions of songs based mainly on the Psalms and other biblical passages.

Worldview: Although semi-Rastafarian ("Jah" replaces "Yawheh" throughout), O'Connor's love of the Psalms and her cover of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" suggest that the embers of her Catholic upbringing still glow.

Overall quality: Movingly depicts a confused but earnest search for the peace that, often like the turmoil, passes all understanding.

As Steals the Morn . . .

Style: "Arias and scenes for tenor" (Padmore with the English Concert directed by Andrew Manze) from Handel's oratorios and operas.

Worldview: "Handel created roles for tenors that were superbly tailored to the characteristics of individual voices, whilst also showing his innate compassion for the dramatic demands of any situation" (the notes).

Overall quality: Six pieces for Samson and settings of Milton poetry provide the highest of many high points.

Will Ayton: A Reliquary for William Blake

Style: Four song cycles and three other compositions for viol quartet and mezzo-soprano.

Worldview: "[T]hese pieces attempt to musically illustrate [Blake's] philosophical and spiritual credo, his view of institutionalized religion and its impositions, his understanding of human love, and finally his own role as the perennial scribe and witness of life" (the composer's notes).

Overall quality: Possibly the most aesthetically cohesive setting of Blake's poetry and prose to music yet.

The Iron Stone

Style: Poetry (Wyatt, Raleigh, Emerson, John Clare, "Sir Patrick Spens") and original lyrics set to folk and improvised melodies for numerous exotic instruments.

Worldview: "I pray to God in God's absence, / honouring the unlit dark and the snuffed flame. . . . / I pray to God in God's presence humanly / and most of all in love."

Overall quality: Charmingly eccentric, Williamson's voice makes even the most whimsical of these verses sound magical.

Spotlight

The setting of William Blake's verse to music has proved irresistible to everyone from Allen Ginsberg (ridiculous) and Robin Williamson (sublime) to William Bolcom (both) and Van Morrison (neither). For sheer consistency and elegance of tone, however, nothing equals A Reliquary for William Blake (MSR). Composed by the American Will Ayton and performed with passionate delicacy by the viol consort Parthenia and the mezzo-soprano Alexandra Montano, Reliquary creates a musical setting for 14 Blake poems that, like the poetry itself, is simple on its surface but alive with richer goings-on just beneath.

The disc's second half draws on less well-known sources, both literary (Campion, Phyllis McGinley) and musical (Purcell, Francis Pilkington, Songs of the British Isles, Ayton's "Incantations") while sustaining the mood of the Blake half as well as its intent, which is to render the echoes of what Ayton calls his "hereditary legacy" resonant to the modern ear and thus make them part of our hereditary legacy too.

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