A Modern Take on the Choral Ballad Boasting Vivid Writing, Vividly Sung
The music ranges far and wide on this disc of choral works by William McClelland, embracing everything from Scottish folklorism and pop to many-layered, traditional a cappella writing. Whatever the style, the composer finds lucid and evocative solutions to the challenges posed by the poems, all in English, which are set with such skill that it is almost possible to forgo the texts in the booklet.
The 14 selections range from sonnets to more extended works, including a striking ballad, The Revenge of Hamish, with words by 19th-century American poet Sidney Lanier. The narrative is violent and even harrowing, full of atmosphere and dramatic incident, and McClelland deftly employs folk elements to achieve local colour.
Elsewhere, the composer's fertile contrapuntal imagination can be heard in a varied array of shorter pieces, notably the a cappella Five Sonnets for Men's Voices, set to texts by Millay, Berryman, Aiken, E.E. Cummings and Wilbur. The last poet also provides the inspiration for A Wood, a dream of a tonal and vocal landscape with chorus and wind quintet joining rapturous, piquant forces.
The Ballad of Don and Dan recounts the tale of a homicidal father and son in Montana in 1984. Ian Frazier's text encourages McClelland to go eclectic and gospel-tinged vernacular, which he does with a winning vengeance. The story isn't pretty, but the music works.
The William Appling Singers and Orchestra perform each piece with keen attention to words, blend and phrasing, and the instrumentalists are exceptional advocates for McClelland's appealingly direct manner of expression.
- Donald Rosenberg