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Caroline Shaw: Is a Rose; The Listeners

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), et al; Philharmonia Chorale/Nicholas McGegan (Philharmonia Baroque)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Caroline Shaw
Is a Rose; The Listeners
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Avery Amereau (contralto), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone), Caroline Shaw (tape); Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Philharmonia Chorale/Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia Baroque PBP12   49:25 mins

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This intriguing initiative from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) blends old and new in two appealing commissions for voices and period instruments. Featuring new works by Pulitzer prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, the disc pairs the orchestral song-cycle Is a Rose with a substantial new oratorio, The Listeners, which aptly celebrates the weight of history alongside the triumph of human progress.

Scored for contralto, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra, The Listeners explores the precious cargo of the Voyager space probes. Launched in 1977 and still hurtling through space, the two spacecraft carry discs containing images, sounds and messages that represent the accomplishments of humankind. Shaw’s imaginative score, performed with real verve by the PBO, conjures both the ancient and the dazzling mysteries of space travel, while her thoughtfully-compiled libretto spans some five centuries of literature. Shaw’s post-minimalist style is warm, lyrical and predominantly tonal but escapes the saccharine through original use of texture and timbre. A torrent of string pizzicatos swirl like dizzying rainfall to accompany Dashon Burton’s fine bass-baritone in ‘Of a million million’ (setting lines from Tennyson’s Vastness) while Afro-Latina poet Yesenia Montilla’s poem Maps explores contemporary immigration policy to keep the work bang up to date, and is met with suitably spiky performances in the harpsichord and oboe.

The three songs of Is a Rose similarly traverse time, featuring texts by Burns, contemporary poet Jacob Polley and the composer herself. By turns luxurious and restrained, the piece is heard in a radiant performance from Anne Sofie von Otter with beautifully pliant orchestral accompaniment to complete this excellent disc.

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Kate Wakeling