Time to reveal some personal history. (I hope this doesn’t prevent me from running for President someday.) For four years I edited the recordings column for Choral Journal, a monthly professional magazine from the ACDA. A lot of choral recordings passed through my hands and ears. Before that, I myself was a church and university choral director. I heard, and caused others to hear, a lot of choral music.
I couldn’t help noticing a couple of odd things about the choral world and its relationship to the rest of so-called “classical” music. One was that choral music almost never popped up on classical radio. In fact, you weren’t likely to tune in your local FM “good music” outlet and hear vocalizing of any sort—art song, operas, Bach cantatas—except at very specific times. Saturday afternoon: opera. Sunday morning: choirs (singing “sacred music” only). Schubert lieder? Maybe, if there was a show especially devoted to singers. The rest of the time, instrumental music reigned.
Here’s the other odd thing: back when I was editing that Choral Journal column I noticed the mailbag would start getting heavy around mid-November. Both the record labels and the self-producers (a teeming horde in the choral world, as elsewhere) seemed to regard Christmas season as the time to release their annual choral quota. We had our own little version of Black Friday at CJ: by early December dozens of CDs would gather, seeking a home. I never found reviewers for them all. Eventually we started doing a “Christmas in July” column because our publication schedule dictated that a record sent in November wouldn’t get review space until March or April anyway.
Fast-forward to 2011. Now I’m free to write about almost anything classical for Paul and PS Tracks, but come December I still find choral albums forming festive heaps in my office. Might as well enjoy it! Since Classical Corner doesn’t labor under any publication lag, I can tell you about some great choral CDs right now. Maybe you will even want to give one to a friend or family member. (And maybe, if you have never enjoyed choral music except at Christmas, you’ll be persuaded to try it out more often.)
To make that easier, we’re going to sort these into categories: (1) For Traditionalists—bring us some figgy pudding, and please bring it in hi-res download or multichannel DSD; (2) New Music—freshly created, beautiful, worth discovering; (3) Early Music—hey, it was good enough for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria! (4) For Mahlerites—you know who you are. Read on. (Full titles, credits, catalog numbers at the end of this column.)
For Traditionalists. Some of us don’t really get our season going until we’ve heard carols sung in a resonant chapel space by a British choir of men and boys. “Once in Royal David’s City” still gets me every time. If you’d like your Brit Yule fix to arrive a bit earlier than the BBC’s Christmas Eve relay, I recommend a new Chandos SACD, On Christmas Night, from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Like the King’s College choir, this group has built its present glories atop a storied past. (I grew up on their characterful LPs of the Haydn Masses, conducted by Sir George Guest.) The St. John’s repertoire has ranged widely, its vocal sound often warmer and more flexible than one expected. To illustrate, allow me to pull out a single plum, namely St. John’s take on the classic “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by Harold Darke:
St. John’s current director, Andrew Nethsingha, skillfully leads his charges through familiar seasonal items by John Rutter, William Mathias, John Joubert, Peter Warlock—all upholders of British choral tradition—and lovely arrangements of favorite carols as well. Whether you’re new to the genre or, like me, drawn irresistibly to it year after year, you’ll enjoy this. Full texts and translations, engaging notes on the music, and a gorgeously atmospheric acoustic.
Or maybe you still hanker after the sound of the old Robert Shaw Chorale holiday recordings, done with a small studio ensemble in the early 1950s. Their full-throated, direct approach spawned legions of imitators. Not that Paul Hillier’s new offering, The Christmas Story, with Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, is some sort of Shaw imitation. It is, however, a pure joy. His sixteen Danish professionals tear into “Veni veni Emanuel” or “Personent hodie” without holding back. They don’t peep or croon, they sing out!
Hillier has done many of the arrangements himself. Their shining clarity also brings to mind the old Shaw-Parker carol settings. But listen to his vastly more creative harmonic way with “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”:
The album is sequenced as if it were a service of Lessons and Carols, minus the Lessons. Interspersed with familiar numbers are a few Italian Baroque dialogues, in which individual singers from the Theatre of Voices dramatize the old legends and stories to charming effect. Produced by Robina Young, engineered and edited in DSD by Brad Michel, and packaged with Harmonia Mundi’s customary luxury: full texts and translations plus some stunning contemporary artwork. (Why can’t all records come out like this? It’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing.)
New Music. It’s a golden age for connoisseurs of contemporary choral sound. Perhaps the mini-revolution began with Holy Minimalists like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, who brought us back to tonality, stripped away the tired habits of the mid-century neoclassicists, and reconnected this music to the faith traditions that nurtured it in ages past. They’ve been joined more recently by younger hands who brought in innovative harmonies and multicultural touches.
Two recent releases especially demonstrate the power and friendliness of choral music from this new generation. Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach: an Irish Colloquy really grew on me. It sets portions of an ancient Irish vernacular narrative. Like Boccaccio’s Decameron or the Canterbury Tales, the Acallam is a frame-tale that contains many shorter tales. These span a time-period that encompasses the deeds of the legendary Irish hero Finn mac Cumaill (Fionn McCool) and the coming of St. Patrick to Ireland centuries later. In the Acallam, Patrick meets up with a handful of Finn’s old fían or war-band, men who have unaccountably survived into another age; they tell their stories to Patrick and submit to baptism at his hands. As scholar Geraldine Parsons relates in the excellent liner notes,
The stage is set for a tremendous clash of cultures as representatives of Ireland’s old, pagan and heroic order encounter the modernizing force of Christianity for the first time. . . . Probably the best-known and best-loved scene in the Acallam is that in which St. Patrick is told by angels to preserve the learning and lore of the pagans he has met. He should utilize the Church’s new technology, writing, to record the memories of these ancients. . . . [Thus] this is a work about memory and about the perennial desire to capture the past, to interpret it and to reconcile it with the present.
O’Regan uses only a mixed chorus (here the National Chamber Choir of Ireland), guitar, and two bodhráns. As far as I can tell, the bodhrán players do not interact with the chorus, and the composer only calls upon vocal soloists at one or two points. Yet he manages to evoke Patrick’s encounter with Caílte, chief among Finn’s surviving warriors, in a manner that recalls the story-telling techniques of the old Irish bards. Following a prologue for bodhráns and guitar only, powerful in its cryptic simplicity, the narrative begins. “After the battles of Commar, Gabair, and Ollarba, the Fían was destroyed. The survivors scattered across Ireland . . .”
O’Regan has said that he “was drawn to the evenness of the dialogue.” I think he meant that the Acallam is remarkable in the way it grants equal respect to saint and warrior, priest and pagan. Yet there is musical hazard in the depiction of “evenness,” and the composer does not entirely avoid patches of dry declamation. Here the choir assumes the principal burden; at times O’Regan may rely too much on drone formulas and the like. Yet listen to his unexpectedly lively concluding treatment of the “Fían Paternoster,” a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer truly befitting an Irish warrior. It brings back music first heard when Patrick baptized Caílte (to “The Spring,” an ancient poem of the fían) and brings in the guitar, introducing an instrument associated elsewhere in O’Regan’s piece with the síd, or underworld. Masterful “evenness” indeed.
Paul Hillier is (again) the skilled conductor, Stewart French the virtuoso guitarist, and Jim Higgins and Frank Torpey the indispensable bodhránisti. At first I found the instrumental interludes the most exciting parts of this score. But with repeated listening, the strength of O’Regan’s choral craftsmanship made itself plain. Great multichannel SACD (you really must hear those bodhráns in surround!) from (again) Robina Young and Brad Michel.
And here is another recording worth checking out: Michala Petri, recorder superstar, teamed with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and conductor Stephen Layton (another Brit!) in four works composed especially for her. The result is The Nightingale from OUR Recordings, another multichannel must-have. Just listen to the first cut:
“My word! That’s lovely!” These books went all over the world / and so in course of time / some of them reached the Emperor / there he sat in his golden chair reading: / “But the nightingale is really the best of all.” (After Hans Christian Andersen)
The rich invention of The Nightingale (music by Ugis Praulins, b. 1957), based upon Andersen’s beloved tale of the emperor and the nightingale, is matched—at least—by the other standout work on this SACD, 2 Scenes with Skylark, on texts by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
On ear and ear two noises too old to end . . . Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, / His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score / In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour / And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.
Danish composer Peter Bruun (b. 1968) lists Duran Duran, Simple Minds, and Spandau Ballet among his first musical influences. Since completing conservatory training he’s written in many genres, but he obviously keeps the audience in mind, easily melding pop-culture moments with sophisticated harmonies and counterpoint. In the second of the 2 Scenes, he mates the breathy, dark sound of Petri’s tenor recorder with Hopkins’ meditation on the finitude of human life:
Both [man and lark] sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells, / Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells . . . / Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest / Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest, / But his own nest, wild nest, no prison. / Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best, / But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed / For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.
Early Music. Uh oh. I’m running out of space. Kindly forgive these brief descriptions of two discs you may find rewarding. The first is from Anonymous 4, so it’s virtually self-recommending. Their newest offering, Secret Voices: Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c.1300, has a slightly forbidding title, but musically it welcomes visitors with open arms.
Las Huelgas was (is) a convent founded by King Alfonso VIII of Castile in the early 12th century as a retreat for royal and noble women who sought to lead a sheltered religious life. Its abbess exercised considerable churchly independence: she could say Mass, hear confessions, and rule on other matters much as a priest or bishop might have done. The women of the convent (incorporated into the Cistercian order in 1188) regularly sang music of the Office and Mass, much of which was gathered in the Codex Las Huelgas in the early 1300s. Musicologist Susan Hellauer, longtime member of Anonymous 4, edited a selection of these works for the new album. Quite a few were polyphonic, in spite of the Cistercian rule that prohibited women from singing polyphony. It seems they just went ahead and did it!
The music is arranged so as to form a day’s worth of song in the convent, with special emphasis on adoration of the Virgin and texts that reference monastic life. The result is a constantly changing program of late-medieval music, performed with the quartet’s usual grace and purity. Here is a brief sample, a polytextual motet on Marian texts. Many more treasures await, all in high-resolution multichannel sound.
My other early-music recommendation is Laudent Deum: Sacred Music by Orlande de Lassus, from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, all conducted by Andrew Nethsingha. Who would have thought that Lassus, one of the most prolific and celebrated composers of the late 16th century, would remain a mystery to so many modern listeners? I confess to having sat among them, in spite of being a music-history professor and all. Nethsingha and friends have helped remedy that. Here in glorious profusion lie seven-voice motets, alternatim Magnificat settings, texted and textless bicinia (two-voice settings) and more, many of them receiving their first recordings. Listen, for example, to the imitative counterpoint of Qui sequitur me (“He that followeth me,” get it?):
And here is Lassus’ sumptuous setting of Omnes de Saba venient, drawing upon the Venetian polychoral manner to paint anew the adoration of the magi:
All those from Saba shall come: they shall bring gold and frankincense; and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. . . . (Isaiah 60:6)
In addition, His Majestys Sagbutts offer instrumental versions of several works. This is just a terrific CD, a good introduction to a major Renaissance composer and a festive disc to spin during the holidays. Do not hesitate.
For Mahlerites. Sooner or later you’ll spot one of them at a party. He is that poor soul sitting in a corner, muttering “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” She is that woman who, served some perfectly good fruitcake, will gaze fixedly at it: “So banal. And yet…” Here’s how you can make their day. Gift them with one of the extraordinary new Blu-Ray discs listed below. They are from Accentus, a new European label that has in a very short time become an indispensable purveyor of classical goodies.
Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies are both choral masterpieces, and undoubtedly your confirmed Mahlerite already has a dozen recordings of each. But they may not have these! Two are from Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, live performances recorded in May of 2011. The Eighth is by far the best-recorded orchestral “video” I have ever experienced. The playing of the fabled Gewandhaus Orchestra is captured with exquisite balance, transparency, and power in high-res audio. The camera work is equally fine, although I found some close-ups of the vocal soloists distracting. The big surprise was Chailly, whose earlier Mahler work has occasionally struck me as slick and somewhat detached. Well, no detachment here! This will probably end up on many Best-of-2011 lists.
Chailly’s Mahler Second is just as good, but now Accentus has also given us an American Second: A Concert for New York, In Remembrance and Renewal, with the New York Philharmonic, the New York Choral Artists, and conductor Alan Gilbert, recorded September 10, 2011. Given the occasion, this performance would have packed an enormous emotional wallop even if the artists had phoned in their work. The good news is that they did not. Although this is probably not a Desert Island Disc, the Philharmonic’s long experience with this music and their respect for their new Music Director, a native New Yorker, are evident at every moment. The music does not always become incandescent, but there are many good moments. Aided by the Accentus camera crew, director Michael Beyer occasionally cuts to shots of the audience seated outside Avery Fisher Hall, usually rapt, as well as views of the city skyline and Times Square (in a helter-skelter vignette during the Scherzo). It all seems appropriate, because this is as much a 9/11 memorial as it is a record of an often-fine performance.
Recordings Described Above
On Christmas Night. Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. John Challenger and Freddie James, organ. Andrew Nethsingha, director. Chandos CHSA 5096. CD/SACD, 2011. Produced by Rachel Smith; engineered by Jonathan Cooper. Also available in various hi-rez downloads.
The Christmas Story. Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen. Paul Hillier, conductor. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807556. CD/SACD, 2011. Produced by Robina Young; engineered by Brad Michel. Also available from HDtracks in 88/24.
Tarik O’Regan: Acallam na Sonórach: An Irish Colloquy. National Chamber Choir of Ireland. Stewart French, guitar. Paul Hillier, conductor. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807486. CD/SACD, 2011. Produced by Robina Young; engineered by Brad Michel. Also available from HDtracks in 88/24.
The Nightingale. [Music by Ugis Praulins, Daniel Börtz, Sunleif Rasmussen, and Peter Bruun.] Michala Petri, recorders. Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Stephen Layton, conductor. OUR Recordings 6.220605. CD/SACD, 2011. Produced by Lars Hannibal, Ivar Munk, and Preben Iwan; engineered by Preben Iwan and Mikkel Nymand.
Secret Voices: Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c.1300. Anonymous 4. Harmonia Mundi HMU 07510. CD/SACD, 2011. Produced by Robina Young; engineered by Brad Michel. Also available from HDtracks in 88/24.
Laudent deum: Sacred Music by Orlande de Lassus. His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Timothy Ravalde, organ. Andrew Nethsingha, conductor. Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0778. CD, 2011. Produced and edited by Rachel Smith; engineered by Jonathan Cooper. Also available as 24/96 download.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, MDR Rundfunkchor, Chor der Oper Leipzig, GewandhausChor, Thomanerchor Leipzig, GewandhausKinderchor. Vocal soloists. Riccardo Chailly, conductor. Accentus Music ACC20222 (dvd), ACC10222 (Blu-Ray), 2011. Produced by Paul Smaczny.
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, MDR Rundfunkchor, RundfunkChor Berlin, GewandhausChor. Christiane Oelze, Sarah Connolly, soloists. Riccardo Chailly, conductor. Accentus Music ACC20238 (dvd), ACC10238 (Blu-Ray), 2011. Produced by Paul Smaczny.
Mahler: Symphony No 2 (“Resurrection”), A Concert for New York, In Remembrance and Renewal. New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists. Dorothea Röschmann, Michelle DeYoung, soloists. Alan Gilbert, conductor. Accentus Music ACC20241 (dvd), ACC10241 (Blu-Ray), 2011. Produced by Paul Smaczny.