Skylark Vocal Ensemble Delivers Engrossing Meditation on Death / by Doyle Armbrust

It is an injustice of life that musical elegies and songs of consolation are customarily saved for the rituals following death, rather than employed in the moments immediately preceding the final breath. Skylark’s nectarous new release, "Crossing Over," lives at this intersection of existence and the void, and one can only hope to have a soundtrack like this at hand when the time comes — rather than keeling over in a grocery aisle to a MIDI reduction of Journey’sDon’t Stop Believing.

As in a newly pressurized room, one’s eardrums puff outward as the chorale of Daniel Elder’s Elegy unfurls with the incantation of "Day is done, gone the sun." Founded in 2011 and based in Atlanta and Boston, Skylark is only recently on the scene, but this album opener knowingly reaches in through the ribs and grips the vitals, sending a heartbreaking panorama of cherished memories across at least this listener’s inner eye. Elder’s weaving in of the ubiquitous, funereal arpeggio of Taps sounds risky on paper, but the treatment of it here as a swirling canon — and the poignancy of his orchestrations in general — point to a talent from whom we’re eager to hear more.

Though a marquee composer, the recently-deceased (2013) John Tavener posthumously contributes a lesser-tread suite, Butterfly Dreams, as his primary entry on "Crossing Over." Evoking the delicacy of existence through the prisms of multiple poets, the piece makes an abrupt stylistic turn in the fourth movement, whipping the haiku "The flying butterfly, I feel myself a creature of dust" into a cyclone of heavenward fluttering. Skylark’s abilities are also on impressive display for the world premiere recording of Robert Vuichard’s Heliocentric Meditation, which funnels the voices in and out of narrow chord clusters before erupting into ecstatic, open harmonies.

Across these as well as Nicolai Kedrov’s uplifting Ochte Nash, Jón Leifs’s gently-rocking-major-minor Requiem, and William Schuman’s ascetic Carols of Death, the alchemy of the Sono Luminus label’s unimpeachable team and Skylark director Matthew Guard’s catalyzing leadership delivers an engrossing meditation on death. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s exquisite setting of an Icelandic psalm, Heyr þú oss himnum á. (Side bar to the Game of Thrones music advisors: if you neglect to use this piece in the funeral scene of a future episode, you will lead a life of irreconcilable regret.)

- Doyle Armbrust