American composer Dan Locklair is professor of music and composer-in-residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and his music has been widely performed in many countries. This new disc of his sacred choral music bears testimony to the relationship he has forged with English conductor Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway (University of London, United Kingdom), and all of the music appearing here is superbly performed and recorded.
All of the pieces recorded on this new album attest to Locklair’s confidence and competence in writing easily accessible music that is finely crafted and nuanced. Locklair’s text setting is always idiomatic and sensitive to the emotional underpinnings inevitably associated with these (mainly) well-known religious texts. It cannot be denied however, that this is exceptionally conservative music to be appearing in the first part of the 21st century. There is nothing tonally or technically demanding here that would be beyond the understanding and abilities of singers and players of the last couple of hundred years, at least, and I found myself craving just a little more “adventurousness” quite often when experiencing this music. Much of the Requiem, for example, is set in pretty straightforward minor tonality with not a great deal of contrast. It sounds very nice, but after a while I found my attention wandering. The instrumental writing is fairly rudimentary as well, and one wonders how enjoyable the experience was for the string players in particular.
I found the other pieces recorded here to be of more interest than the Requiem, and in all of these there are to be found moments of inspiration and effective use of choral forces. Personally, I found the unaccompanied Comfort Ye My People to be the best piece on this recording. Set out in a rough ternary structure, the contrasting middle section is intensely impassioned as well as harmonically and texturally more adventurous than much of the other music here. It is also wonderfully sung.
Then there were other pieces that were less interesting. O Light of Light sets three verses, the second and third of which are taken by soprano and tenor soloists, with the first acting as a choral refrain. It is perfectly fine, but just seemed lacking in inspiration to me. Locklair’s choral style utilizes a great deal of homophonic writing for voices, and when accompanied—as many of these pieces are—he also likes to give melodic lines to various voice parts in turn, so there is quite a bit of unison or octave-unison writing for the choir. The trouble with this is that Locklair’s melodic gift is not on the level of a Benjamin Britten, or a Herbert Howells, or a Gerald Finzi, or a Morten Lauridsen, so these sections lack individuality and character to me.
Through all of this, it must be stated that the performances set down here are very fine indeed. The Choir of Royal Holloway is clearly an outstanding specialist ensemble very nearly on the same level as those of even the most famous English choral institutions. Blend, intonation, diction, and vocal tone are basically flawless throughout, and there are many glorious moments for the high sopranos, in particular. Equally impressive is the string playing of the Southern Sinfonia, although, as suggested above, they are rarely challenged technically by this music. The multi-movement Requiem sets the Latin original in English throughout, which is slightly unusual but completely appropriate and effective. All of the other pieces recorded here are also sung in English, and Locklair must have been delighted to have these pieces sung in true English, something very few American college choirs can achieve.
In summary, this is a fine disc of capable music, superbly sung and beautifully recorded. Recommended.