Monday, January 1, 2018

Lux Fulgebit: A Review

Just as last year ended with a review, so this year begins with a review. Today we look at Lux Fulgebit: the Mass at Dawn of Christmas Day, a recording by the Schola Cantorum of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Immediately, two distinct features make this recording worth a listen: it presents a hitherto unheard English Renaissance setting for the ordinary of the Mass by William Rasar; and that it is a full of a rarely heard Mass, as the second Mass of Christmas day is routinely neglected for the midnight and daytime Masses.

Lux Fulgebit is comprised of serious scholarship and recording effort. The Mass Christe Iesu, Rasar's only extant work, had to be consolidated from two manuscripts in order to present the full work, including the tenor part from a separate tradition. The decision to contextualize Rasar's Christe Iesu within a Mass means the complete Mass of Christmas at Dawn, replete with the collects and commemorations of St. Anastasia, the lesson, gradual, Gospel, preface, bells for the consecration, the Pater Noster, and the dismissal—all from the Roman liturgy despite the Mass's author having written in England in 1515.

The Mass begins with an organ prelude, the Introit, and a plainsong Kyrie before transitioning into the Gloria, which, with the Benedictus, was my favorite track on Lux Fulgebit. Because so few voices sing on the tracks, the parts are clear and harmonize very well, especially the treble parts, presumably sung by a woman rather than a boy, but without any of the vibrato or "breathy" sound one typically hears with the female voice. The choir paces itself while and resists any undue need to embellishment, instead letting the natural harmonies within the work's key provide layering of sound so characteristic of the English Renaissance and so atypical of the later "chirpy" polyphony.

Unfortunately, the plainsong and clerical parts fail to meet the same standard of excellence the polyphony achieves. Perhaps the sound equipment was too tuned or the choice of recording setting was not amicable to chant, but the Gregorian melodies are flat, without resonance, and far too intelligible in a bad way; one can hear the moisture of the cantors' mouths and that hiss every time a word ends with the letter "s". The real tragedy is that I am familiar with this choir's singing from when I lived in Connecticut and I know they can do much better this.

Is Lux Fulgebit a triumph? No, but it is a very good first recording that advances awareness of Rasar's Christe Iesu Mass and it is a pleasant listen. I am looking forward to St. Mary's next offering.

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