Against the Dying of the Light: the Second Cantus CD Page 2
"After our shows we stay and talk to anyone who would like to speak to us, and people were coming up to us and telling us how much our performances meant to them—particularly the Jennings settings of the Dylan Thomas poems. Obviously, many people already knew and had thought about those poems—or the 'De Profundis' or some of the other texts—so they brought all of that to our concerts and gave that back to us in their responses to the music."
"Rise up in the silence"—Alphonse de Lamartine: I can attest to the power of the experience. I was, after all, present in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minnesota, during most of the recording sessions. I carried the program texts around in my reporter's notebook for six months and I had heard individual songs numerous times, both at the mixdown meetings Michael Hanawalt and Erick Lichte flew to Brooklyn for, and when John Atkinson asked me to listen to different CD-Rs of potential final mixes.
Still, nothing prepared me for the experience of receiving a finished copy of ...Against the Dying of the Light one day in late summer. The package, with its die-cut slipcase showing a black-and-white photograph of the group standing far off in a field of grain under the lowering horizon, proclaims that this is something special. Inside, the texts are arranged in a format notable for its spare economy. The words are set in large, clear, readable type surrounded by acres of white space, and no graphic clutter pulls the eye away from them. It is serious and quite moving. It is significant that in this project the artists themselves made every decision—even the layout was the work of bass Tim Takach. The result is a beautifully integrated piece of art that shames most major-label classical endeavors at every level.
Then there was the program itself, which I had not heard in its intended sequence—the works were recorded in segments and out of order.
So I sat down and simply experienced the disc for the first time.
This experience was mirrored by Cantus' own, of their first performance of the complete program at a homecoming concert in Minneapolis. "On tour, we incorporate several of the pieces into a larger program," said Hanawalt. "Of course, the experience of recording the disc took things out of order and even broke it down into sections. We were all concentrating on just performing our parts to the best of our abilities, so we never really had the experience of singing all of these works back to back and dealing with this progression of emotions as we sang them ourselves.
"Typically, we try to have an encore ready...but what could you do? What could you do? Finally, we just decided we couldn't follow this with anything—we'd just stand there. The audience totally understood it—when we finally reach the final resting place of the Barber at the end, the experience is complete. And the audience was willing to just ponder that, to savor it."
The journey begins with "Hymnus," in which Sibelius paints a bleak picture of life, all right—nor do Casals or Orff make death sound particularly easeful ("Death, pain, grief, and terror fall upon all.").
In "Sydämeni laulu," Sibelius trudges to the fabled grove of the dead, where "a sandy cradle is waiting" for his dead child. There, he reflects, "...my child is free from sorrow, / Lulled to sleep by a birdsong mellow, / Rocked in a cradle of gold. /...far from passion, / Far away from man's oppression, / Far from the treacherous world."
Schubert peers into the grave and pleads with the moon, "Friend of slumber, dear moon, / be not silent, / whether darkness or light / lives in the grave. /.../ Now, still grave, speak. / You drew many a beam down into rest. /.../ Give only one beam back!"
By the time the baritones were repeating "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," I was a wreck—staring eternity directly in the face is hard work. But the beauty of the program is that it does not conclude simply with man's rage against the inevitable.
Madetoja's "De Profundis" marks the beginning of a remarkable sequence of texts and tones. "Out of the depths," indeed. Thompson's "Alleluia" breaks like a dawn, and Debussy's weightless "Invocation" actually sends one's spirits aloft. Then, after what seems an interminable silence of nearly 30 seconds, the open major chords of Barber's "Heaven-Haven" are as welcome as the first gasp of air that fills your lungs after an icy plunge. It is a relief—and it is a release.
The only possible response is to sit there for a few moments, pondering things.
And then, to applaud.— Wes Phillips