Tall Poppies


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Choral Music by Clare Maclean
Sydney Chamber Choir
Paul Stanhope- conductor

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

Tall Poppies is delighted to present a second disc of Clare Maclean’s choral music. Clare is one of the few Australian composers creating an oeuvre of a cappella choral music, mostly inspired by her deep religious beliefs. Her music is always accessible with its exquisite harmonies and clarity in illuminating her texts. Her deep understanding of what is satisfying for choirs to sing comes from her years as a member of the Sydney Chamber Choir.

The following words about her first CD (TP073) from an Amazon customer say it all:
“I was first exposed to Clare Maclean’s choral music while singing in my university chamber choir. At the time, I didn’t know the effect it would have on me; however, I came to realize that it’s the kind of music that, once heard, stays with you. Maybe it’s because her voice as a composer is so uniquely female, or because it expresses such a universal spirituality. Whatever the reason, this is some of the most glorious music I have ever heard.”

Clare MacleanOsanna Mass
In the Year that King Uzziah Died
os anthos chortou
Vive in Deo
We welcome Summer


Clare Maclean (b 1958) is a native of New Zealand, where she studied composition with Gillian Bibby before moving to Australia and studying with Peter Sculthorpe and Bruce Crossman in Sydney. She has sung with the Sydney Chamber Choir. The Osanna Mass, the principal work here, was written for that ensemble. For five years she was composer-in-residence for the St Louis Chamber Chorus, directed by Philip Barnes, and two of the shorter works here - 'Os Anthos Chortou' and 'Vive in Deo' - were written for them. Maclean is currently on the faculty of the University of Western Sydney. This recording of unaccompanied choral works is the second devoted to her music by the Sydney Chamber Choir under Paul Stanhope for this label.

The Osanna Mass takes much of its melodic material from Gregorian Mass IX (Cum Jubilo) and Jewish liturgical chants. The Sanctus is set in Hebrew rather than Latin. The composer likens the music of her mass to illustrations in medieval manuscripts from her use of borrowed materials and their associations.

In the Year that King Uzziah Died takes its text from the sixth chapter of Isaiah (source of the Latin Sanctus and Hebrew Kedusha) plus a phrase from the hymn 'Breathe on me, Breath of God'. 'Os Anthos Chortou' is a setting of fragment 31 of Sappho and is marked by melodies projected against vocal drones and ostinato figures. 'Vive in Deo' takes its text from Latin and Greek grave inscriptions from the Roman catacombs. The music includes imitations of the calling of doves in reference to the Holy Spirit and allusions to Brahms' s Intermezzo in E minor, Opus 119:2. 'We Welcome Summer' is a setting of a poem published in 1991 by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig.

Maclean's music presents an often pungent mixture of modes, clusters, other richly complex harmonies, and triadic harmony, though seldom with a feeling of tonal harmonic progression. Her music has a strong contrapuntal basis derived in part from her experience of singing Renaissance polyphony with the Sydney Chamber Choir. The drones and ostinatos that seem to be especially elicited by the Sapphic fragment produce a static impression, or perhaps better, a sensation of time standing still. This and the juxtaposition of complex harmonies with spare textures (unison or two-part, with or without a drone) may remind some listeners of the music of John Tavener.

The performances are dazzling for their technical virtuosity and choral discipline in material that is highly challenging.
William J. Gatens,
American Record Guide 75.1 (Jan 2012)

The Sydney Chamber Choir, under Paul Stanhope’s direction, performs with precision and vitality on this disc of a cappella choral works composed by a former member – the New Zealand-born Clare Maclean. The major piece is her Osanna Mass (29:07) written specifically for the choir, and it is no surprise that it won her the Australian Art Music Award for vocal music /choral in 2012. Also included are four older compositions commissioned by other choirs which are uniformly excellent: In the Year that King Uzziah Died (5:59), Os anthos chortou (3:23), Vive in Deo (7:01) and We Welcome Summer (4:37).

Maclean (b.1958) writes serious, beautifully crafted music that is compelling, complex, and original. Richly textured and intricate, it shows her deep understanding of choral traditions. The influence of her early experience singing polyphonic Renaissance music shows particularly in the Osanna Mass which is based on the set of plainchants for the Ordinary of the Mass, Kyriale IX (Cum iubilo), making it akin to a Renaissance paraphrase mass. Each movement also incorporates the chants of other movements, as well as Jewish liturgical melodies. She uses sharper and flatter modes to express symbolically praise and prayer, the two themes running through the whole work, along with allusions to chiming church bells (repeated and overlapping cascading phrases), and also birdsong (blackbird, magpie and currawong). The impression is often of sounds echoing in a huge cathedral but this is created by her expertise in canonic writing, rather than by actual cathedral acoustics. (We are not told in fact where the recording was made.) The unsigned CD notes are otherwise very informative and appear to have been prepared by Maclean herself. I also relished her use of dense clusters resolving into a single line taken by one part or a solo voice, and the use of silence. The harmonies are complex but never harsh as the choir’s intonation is superb.

I found her choice of texts very interesting too. For Vive in Deo, she used epigraphs from Christian graves in the Roman catacombs from the first three centuries C.E. These are very moving, especially those referring to dead children. We Welcome Summer is a Michael Leunig poem from The Prayer Tree, and os anthos chortos (As the Flower of the Grass) is a setting of Sappho’s fragment 31. The Sydney Chamber Choir has a warm, well-blended sonority and excellent diction. The basses sing the very low notes of the “Kyrie” (Osanna Mass) with apparent ease, and the higher voices are never shrill.

This disc is her second with this choir on the Tall Poppies label. The first was released in 1995 on the Tall Poppies label (TP 073). Maclean now lectures at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

I really enjoyed this disc. Osanna Mass is a welcome addition to the a cappella choral repertoire and will no doubt soon become a favourite for top groups who enjoy a rewarding challenge.
© Inge Southcott,
The Music trust May 2014

The Sydney Chamber Choir presents a crystalline and ethereal performance of Clare Maclean’s Osanna Mass, the title track on their 2011 recording from Tall Poppies Records. Conducted by Paul Stanhope, the ensemble functions as a single voice with many facets, seamlessly moving from homophonic moments to polyphonic lines with perfect intonation and uniform purpose.

Maclean’s setting of the traditional Catholic mass incorporates plainchant found in the Ordinary of the Mass as well as Jewish liturgical melodies, creating a cross-cultural experience that feels remarkably organic to the text. Her use of traditional compositional processes such as counterpoint and canon combined with elements of sound mass result in a work that is traditional and, at the same time, quite forward thinking.

Composed for the Sydney Chamber Choir, Maclean’s work is beautifully interpreted by Stanhope and twenty-six exceptional singers. Occasionally, one voice emerges unintentionally from the ensemble sound, but it is not pervasive enough to distract from the work as a whole. The ability of the singers to uniquely color their voices as individual instruments is particularly useful in the Sanctus when Maclean creates a canon at the interval of a major second. Her effective use of dissonance is particularly striking in the Agnus Dei when used to highlight “the sins of the world.” It is obvious that Maclean was acquainted with the ensembles’ superb ability to sing close-knitted harmonies with ease and elegance, making them seem almost angelic.

In the Year that King Uzziah Died is based on Isaiah’s vision of God in heaven, and incorporates a great deal of text painting to create the scene. Up to this point, the clarity of text delivery by the Sydney Chamber Choir is superb, but the complexity of this setting makes accurate text declamation challenging, even for the most gifted ensemble. Listeners will want to refer to the program notes for this selection.

ōs anthos chortou (As the Flower of the Grass) is structured with a Greek chorus and a poet presenting Sappho’s fragment 31. Each segment of the poem is repeated twice, with the distinction between the poet and the chorus becoming more indistinct as the piece progresses. The ensemble handles the two roles well, even as the unique forces collide in intricate harmonies and opposing rhythmic figures.

Vive in Deo features a collection of inscriptions from Christian graves in the Roman catacombs. The ghostly nature of the repeated “Mnéskesthe” (Remember) creates a reverent yet haunting environment for the piece. Each section of the work adopts one word as an ostinato beneath the individual inscriptions being sung, as if by the families of the deceased. All voices come together to call upon Jesus to remember their dead, while a solo soprano voice provides the final blessing: “Sweet soul, may you always live in God.” The piece is effective, haunting, and comforting as a celebration of the life after death.

We Welcome Summer, set to a poem by Australian Michael Leunig, begins with a full chorus of voices independently praising the summer’s warm light. The basses soon adopt a drone-like role, giving the piece a sense of earthly connection. It is as if one can feel the warm breezes rolling through the air. When the text mentions darkness, a rhythmic canon forms between the male and female voices, creating an appropriately unsettling feeling that soon gives way to a beautiful and blossoming “forgiving light.” The “Amen” begins with the tolling of bells, but concludes on a single unison pitch, sung beautifully by the male voices. It is a satisfying and fitting conclusion to a recording that celebrates the triumph of the spirit.
Dr. Jamie Reimer
IAWM Journal Volume 18, Number 1 (2012)

The Osanna Mass is a gorgeously transcendent work of sinuous elegance, colour and radiance. The wonderful surety of writing in this work manifests a mature composer at the peak of her creative powers. One can hear her many musical influences (including the music of the Renaissance and Jewish liturgical melodies) but these are tempered with a seemingly effortless craft as she creates her own distinctive style. Section by section, phrase by phrase there is a wonderful connectedness throughout this substantial work, revealing the composer's deft touch in the setting of text, a subtle sense of harmonic tension and release, and an exquisite understanding of - and feeling for - polyphony.
Statement for the 2012 Art Music Awards: Vocal Work of the Year finalists

We live in an age of unparalleled artistic diversity, a truism made readily apparent by a comparison between two recent choral recordings from the Ukraine and Australia. Though both are devoted to unaccompanied choral music, their differences are both extraordinary and informative. Silvestrov's music is given a sympathetic performance by the Kiev Chamber Choir, while the Sydney Chamber Choir offers persuasive renditions of arresting new pieces by Clare Maclean. While Silvestrov's music emanates generally from the palette of Orthodox chant, Maclean's influences are more diverse and intriguing; yet both will find admirers among those keen to acquaint themselves with the unfamiliar and beguiling.

The Kiev choristers present two major works, "Songs for Vespers" and Psalms and Prayers," by the celebrated Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), one of the first composers in the former USSR to move away from the avant-garde style of the 1960s and seek inspiration in Minimalism, traditional chant and even folk song. Thus he may be compared with composers like Henry Gorecki, Arvo Part, and Alfred Schnittke (who dubbed Silvestrov "the greatest composer of our generation"). Like Part, Silvestrov is clearly draw to tintinnabulation, as well as the hypnotic use of a drone over which women's voices can dance and weave. The multiplicity of low C chords in the men's voices is immediately recognizable to those familiar with Rachmaninov's "Vespers" and the like, yet this very Russian effect is embellished in quite an original manner through superimposition of traditional melodies, sacred and secular. If there is a complaint, it is with the arrangement of these works on the disc itself; the textures of the main works are too similar to be juxtaposed, and would have been happily leavened if later tracks on the disc had been interspersed between them. Certainly, the listener should not miss the concluding sets of "Spiritual Songs," since they are at once more animated and engaging. The liner notes by renowned British critic Paul Griffiths demonstrate how difficult it is to describe music in words. It is puzzling to read, "Melodies in these songs are traces dissolving in the waters of eternity … There is no resolution because nothing remains to be resolved, which means that everything remains to be resolved, because the resolution … is not enough." Yet when one encounters Silvestrov's harmonic textures, Griffith's comments lose some of their pretension.

Far removed, geographically and stylistically, from Silvestrov is the output of Clare Maclean (b. 1958), a composer trained first in her native New Zealand, and then in Sydney with the 'dean' of Australian composers, Peter Sculthorpe. Her music has been the subject of two discs by the Sydney Chamber Choir, with whom she once sang. The more recent offers her "Osanna Mass" and four motets, and deserves to be heard by all who yearn for contemporary music that moves beyond the cliché of cluster chords, yet fascinates both performer and audience. Unlike the Silvestrov, this is a disc that invites repeat listening, especially in order to appreciate her 'layering' of ideas. Birdsong embellishes "Vive in Deo," an eclectic collection of inscriptions taken from the Roman catacombs. The contemporary cartoonist, Michael Leunig, provides a brilliant paean to summer, while an intimate verse by the ancient poet Sappho sung in the original Greek ends with music as enigmatic as the text. Words from The Book of Isaiah, "In the Year that King Uzziah Died" - familiar to many church musicians through the music of David McKay Williams - are given a radically different yet refreshing treatment. The main work, the "Osanna Mass," demonstrates a remarkable fluency with polyphony, while incorporating unexpected elements of text and effect. The "Sanctus," for example, opens in Hebrew and ends in Latin, while the "Credo" concludes with an Amen that verges on the ecstatic. Small wonder, then, that this new mass setting won the 2012 "Art Music Award for Vocal/Choral work of the year" in Australia. The judging panel commented,"[This] is a gorgeously transcendent work of sinuous elegance, colour and radiance. The wonderful surety of writing in this work manifests a mature composer at the peak of her creative powers."

Here, then, are two remarkably diverse recordings from composers not yet familiar to many American choral directors, but whose music merits our attention and consideration. They reward our curiosity and assure us that choral 'pioneers' may be found in both the Old World and the New, and that ours is a constantly evolving art form.
Choral Journal
Philip Barnes
St. Louis, Missouri

At first it sounds like a medieval or renaissance Mass and then the dissonances appear making one realise that this Osanna Mass was composed more recently. While there is a contemporary sound, the overall impression is of renaissance beauty and polyphony. This is not surprising when one turns to the CD booklet to find that the Mass movements are based on plainchants for the Ordinary of the Mass. In addition, Clare Maclean incorporates in the Latin text of the Sanctus some Hebrew text of the Jewish prayer Kol Nidrei. Elsewhere she uses settings of other Jewish prayers and traditional Jewish melodies for the Latin liturgical text. This a cappella Mass is likened to an illustrated manuscript where visual aspects are translated into music with the texture, light and shade resembling decorative patterns and expressing the themes of prayer and praise. Composed for the Sydney Chamber Choir and conductor Paul Stanhope, it is performed exquisitely by them.

The shorter works on the disc are beautiful miniatures: In the Year that King Uzziah Died, a setting of Isaiah's vision of the Lord; os anthos chorton (As the Flower of the Grass), a setting of Sappho's Fragment 31; a collection of inscriptions from Christian graves in the Roman catacombs form the first three centuries for the text of Vive in Deo (Live in God); and finally, We Welcome Summer, a setting of a poem by Michael Leunig, a bright, cheery celebration of the brilliance of the sun and a call to give thanks and offer joy for it. This is a refreshingly different and most enjoyable collection of choral works by the Penrith-based composer who lectures at the University of Western Sydney and was once a member of this very choir.
Elaine Siversen
Fine Music (2MBS-FM) February 2012

Born in New Zealand but long claimed as an Australian, Clare Maclean has maintained a quiet yet constant profile as a composer of finely crafted and very beautiful sacred choral works. For more than two decades she has perfected her approach, a clear and open sound that sits neatly within the long and remarkably strong tradition of choral music in Australia, also exemplified by her contemporaries Stephen Leek and Andrew Schultz.

Maclean's pieces remind me a little of Giorgio Morandi, the Italian artist who devoted his life to painting muted still lives of bottles and jugs that sat on his dining room table. Through her own humble yet carefully shaped objects, Maclean explores nuance within a tightly focused vocal palate.

The disc features five of her recent pieces, dominated by the Osanna Mass, and all except one are settings of Christian texts (the final miniature being based on words by beloved Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig). These pieces are optimistic and joyous with only the occasional smear of sadness, the overall diatonicism contrasting with some surprising textural and harmonic twists. And as with the best choral composers, Maclean has an intuitive sense of poise; of when to sound and when to be still.

Osanna maintains Maclean's longstanding relationship to her alma mater, the Sydney Chamber Choir, which granted her earliest compositional training and recorded both her monograph discs on Tall Poppies. The choir's crisp intonation perfectly suits Maclean's Renaissance-inspired polyphony; recorded within a reverberant inner-city Sydney church, Osanna is warm, rich and aurally nourishing.
Julian Day
Limelight January 2012

Emergent Joy towards a Higher Place: Osanna Mass

Dr Clare Maclean is a distinguished and important Australasian composer with a distinctive compositional voice—dense voice-led and polyphonic harmonic stasis with aspects evocative of European and Antipodean place. A New Zealand born composer, who currently resides at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Sydney, she has studied composition with seminal figures from both countries: Gillian Bibby and Peter Sculthorpe respectively. Her choral compositions are revered on both sides of the Tasman and internationally recognized with her appointment as composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus in the United States. The Osanna Mass, skillfully executed by the Sydney Chamber Choir under Paul Stanhope’s assured musicianship and captured lucidly by Ian Stevenson’s consummate recording skills, represents an architecturally coming together of a myriad of strands towards a poignant musical and spiritual statement of a strong antipodean composer.

Perhaps for myself this is best illustrated in relation to my early morning bush sojourn ritual. The emergent morning joy of the static bush sounds of the lower Blue Mountains breathing life with gentle moments of ecstatic birdsong joy each with in its felt presence of structure, seems to me, to speak of Clare Maclean’s steely structured music of interruptive joys. This composer’s characteristically dense and ecstatic musical voice—at once steeped in the architecture of the European Cathedral choral tradition and resonances of Renaissance polyphony whilst simultaneously intensely static as if settled somewhere else—synergizes with cathedral like resonances of east coast Australian natural bush sounds.

On a specific level, the densely contained energy of the Osanna Mass follows an organic through line from vivid movement to stasis ebbed back to life to create a sense of sure linear purpose to the music. It is as if Takemitsu’s haltingly-smooth East Asian sense of flow has merged with Machuat’s medieval segmented movement structure to provide smoothly evolving contrast in Maclean’s music. The underlying presence of structure in the music seems to suggest the religious textual import of a subtle underlying force of higher spiritual presence—one that broods and wishes to break through. Indeed ecstatic moments of ‘amen’ burst through the texture at one point in the Mass as if for no apparent reason other than ecstatic joy; perhaps it is the resurgence of her earlier Sappho fragments setting of human sensuality or the Latin text’s hymn of Christian praise. Austere moments of medieval harmony flank and center the piece with a sense of inevitable voice-led raw sonority yet lingering underlying stasis as if grounded in a bush Cathedral of sound. Recording engineer Ian Stevenson’s surround sound version of this at the University of Western Sydney indeed made the work reverberate simultaneously with the delicacy of bellbird bush sounds of Sydney but granite like solidness of York Minster Cathedral. The dense medieval stasis at the center of the Mass contains an achingly intense rising melodic poignancy, perhaps a type of sad longing for salvation. The outer flanks of the music contain dense polyphonic movement reverberating with the joy of extrapolated bell and bird sounds in interweaving human vocals. The Mass’s disciplined joy tinged with poignancy seems to ache for things above and to come.

© Bruce Crossman, September 2011

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