Requiem Masses written since 9/11 go easy on the Dies irae: do you need to hear the Day of Wrath when you’ve seen it? So Fauré’s consoling Requiem is the logical model for Gabriel Jackson’s 2008 seven-movement Requiem for unaccompanied chorus, which asks the listener to make friends with death without fear of an unpleasant or non-existent afterlife. As with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the Latin Mass for the Dead is augmented by other poets, from Kevin Gilbert (1933-93) to Mohican Chief Aupumut (c1725).
The music feels as spontaneously descriptive as Eric Whitacre’s, though without the quick onset of diminishing returns. Even when invitingly mellifluous, Jackson’s Requiem has ill-fitting components that create question-provoking poetic collages. What do the eccentric rhythms mean in the second movement, ‘Epitaph’? Why are half-spoken words in simultaneous counterpoint to sung ones in ‘Autumn wind of eve’? Jackson sometimes looks back to Ligeti for ‘swarm’ effects as a backdrop to long-breathed melodic lines. Meaning can be constantly reinterpreted, though his use of syncopation is a straightforward vehicle of joy. But with such an articulate gift for melody, Jackson oddly chose to have the Aupumut verse in the Lux aeterna spoken rather than sung. So much of the piece achieves a solid marriage of artifice and content that breaking the artifice with a homily is disconcerting.
The rest of the disc is all over the map. Jackson’s 2010 I am the voice of the wind is one of his most deeply felt pieces, using Ligetian swarms even more effectively than in the Requiem. Francis Pott’s 2008 When David heard depicts the grief of the Biblical King David over the death of his son Absalom so eventfully, it’s a short choral opera. But Bob Chilcott’s 2007 feelgood Rosa Mystica (based on Pachelbel’s Canon) and John Tavener’s sternly devotional 1993 Song for Athene feel temperamentally out of place. Performances under Jeremy Backhouse meet the formidable challenges without audible strain, never shrinking away from the music’s intense emotional content. But his radiant Vasari Singers could have been better served by the recording engineers, who prefer hazy treble-heavy choral aura to important details.