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CD review: LA Master Chorale’s new Górecki recording is stunning

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and their Music Director, Grant Gershon, get ready to officially kick-off their 2012/2013 this coming Sunday. Among the music to be featured that night are works by Nico Muhly that they have previously recorded: Bright Mass with Canons and the West Coast premiere of A Good Understanding.

All that said, their season is already off to an auspicious start with the release on CD and MP3 download of their latest recording for Decca:  “Górecki – Miserere,” featuring three works by Polish composer Henryk Górecki:  Lobgesong (“Hymn of Praise”), the title track, Miserere, and the major-label premiere of Pieśni Maryjne (“Marian Songs”).  Their live performance of these works at the end of last season was stunning, and this recording faithfully captures it.

Mr. Górecki is often labeled as a “minimalist” composer, but his chant-like melodies and tonal harmonies have less to do with Herbert Glass, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and other composers usually given that label, and much more in common with former LAMC Composer-in-Residence, Morten Lauridsen, and 17th century composers like Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is unapologetically direct and accessible, while still having a depth which stands up to repeat listenings.

Lobgesong is the earnest opening track, resoundingly setting up the rest of the album.  Of the three works on the recording, Miserere is the best-known:  a grand work for eight-part a capella chorus, with the plea, “Domine Deus Noster,” beginning as a low rumble in the basses and continuing with those same three words as each successive section is layered on top of the previous ones over the course of thirty-plus minutes before the full chorus finally extolls “Miserere Nobis.”  The Master Chorale is at their powerful and transparent best, and the range of color and emotion that Mr. Gershon elicits from his singers is remarkable:  lower voices sound sonorous and rich, upper voices sound bright, clean, and pure.  Blend is impeccable.

The revelation of the album is Pieśni Maryjne (“Marian Songs”).  One has to assume that its relative obscurity is due to the difficulties of  learning to properly pronounce the Polish lyrics (which, I have on good authority, the LAMC does persuasively despite their American accent).  The five songs are pure comfort food, full of chunky, layered harmonies topped with buttery melodies reminiscent of your Polish grandma’s best łazanki.

Decca’s recording quality is solid, faithfully recreating the reverberant live sound of Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Master Chorale’s individual vocal sections, especially in Miserere, arrayed clearly across the sound stage.

Bottom line:  highly recommended  — wait, no scratch that . . . vehemently recommended.

Los Angeles Master Chorale:  “Górecki – Miserere” (Decca:  CD and MP3 download)
Górecki:  Lobgesong
Górecki:  Miserere
Górecki:  Pieśni Maryjne (“Marian Songs”)

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