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Music: The spiritual music fad

How to sort out religious classics from New Age meditation

What qualifies as "spiritual" these days? Why is a record label like Angel going through a whole marketing craze for spiritual awareness, angels, soul journeys, and the like? As classical CD sales sag, anything that "sells" is fair game-including religion. Less cynical observers have noted a universal hunger for spiritual things-but of what kind?

Among the best choral conductors in history, octagenarian Robert Shaw continues to teach and perform through his Choral Institutes. Evocation of the Spirit (Telarc) is a product of Mr. Shaw's French Institute, attended by some of America's brightest choral scholars. Evocation is a departure for master conductor Shaw, who demonstrates focus and energy in contemporary works by Gorecki, Pärt, Martin, Barber, and Schoenberg. Not only does his palette of color and intensity infuse works like Barber's "Adagio" (fans will appreciate the all-vocal arrangement), but his dynamic control in Gorecki's "Totus Tuus" defies description. The polish and intonation of the choir is, as usual, impeccable.

Angel almost ruins a good thing, however, with its excessive marketing that applies "a sensitivity for the magical, the enchanted, and the inspired" to these works. According to liner notes, listening to Inspiration: Meeting Angels through Sound & Music is supposed to be a spiritual journey. We are to address an angel ("Uriel, bring me fire" ) for inspiration from on high as we travel "through the soundscape."

Despite such over-promotion, the nine selections on this CD (sampling VaughanWilliams, Faure, Elgar, Berlioz, and Wagner) evidence musical substance, with several fine works offered at a bargain price. But is that enough reason to endure the New Age blarney in the jacket notes?

Author of Care of the Soul and other popular books on contemporary life, Thomas Moore discusses music's power to heal. With degrees in philosophy, musicology, and theology, plus a dozen years as a monk, Mr. Moore begs the question: Will musical contemplation relieve some of mankind's ills? He thinks so.

Consider some historical models for musical aesthetics. Plato considered music almost on the level of an elixir, capable of expanding intellect. Luther called it theology's "handmaiden," and Augustine equated it with prayer ("He who sings prays twice"). Certainly music has religious qualities, but Music for the Soul goes too far. Some Christians may use music to induce moods and contemplate mysteries. But where does "appreciate" stop and "need" take over-in matters of prayer, meditation, even worship?

Mr. Moore's chosen music is always therapeutic, he says, for "cooperative" souls. An avowed mystic, he ruminates about Tobias Picker's "Old and Lost Rivers"-an orchestral work that evokes a visit to "natural spaces of the external world and the inner spaces of the soul."

Regardless of his questionable theology, this is a well-chosen group of works: Josquin Desprez's "Alma Redemptoris Mater," Rachmaninov's Vespers, Poulenc's Salve Regina and Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 (second movement). Music for the Soul replaces the earnestness missing from Inspiration, Angel's other offering. For those wise enough to resist Moore's flowery pantheism, here are unique classical music vehicles for spiritual contemplation. Considering parallel alternatives from Enya, Yanni, and George Winston, worse things have happened.