> Voice of Africa [GPJ] [JP]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Voice of Africa
Roelof TEMMINGH (b.1946): Himne [5’56"]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847): Psalm 100 (Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt) (c.1842) Unaccompanied Chorus [3’59"]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896): Os justi - Psalm 36, vv30-31. (1879) [4’13"]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901): Pater noster (1880) [6’20"]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935): Magnificat (1989) [6’37"] Lars JOHANSON (b.1951): To the Mothers of Brazil - arr. Gunnar ERIKSSON (b.1936): [5’30"]
Veljo TORMIS (b.1930): Raua Needmine - (Curse upon iron) (1972) [9’50"]
Sven-Eric JOHANSEN (1919-1997): Dilemma (1968) [2’00"]
Thomas JENNEFELT (b.1954): Villarosa sarialdi (1994) [10’37"]
Niel van der WATT (b.1962): I am the Voice of Africa [6’04"]
Jaako MANTYJARVI (b.1963): Pseudo-Yoik [2’07"]
Deep River: (Spiritual) - arr. Anders PAULSSON [5’35"] William SPEVERY: Operator - arr. Niel van der WATT [3’11"]
University of Pretoria Camerata/Johann van der Sandt
Recorded in October 1999 and October 2000
GUILD GMCD 7246 [72’52"]


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There are dozens of superb choirs dotted around the universities of the world, many of them in the southern hemisphere. Here’s an impressive and enjoyable offering from Pretoria in South Africa – a fascinating potpourri of music from the past one hundred and fifty years or so. An added dimension of interest lies in the fact that some of the compositions are European, some contemporary South African.

The first offering is Himne by the South African composer Roelof Temmingh. A setting of a fragment of the ‘Te Deum’, it is attractively eclectic. At the outset we have shifting ‘mystic’ harmonies for the voices against a triplet accompaniment in the piano. This gives way to a strongly rhythmic section, quite jazzy, while the conclusion brings us some modest ‘special effects’, influenced by the music of Penderecki, Ligeti or the UK composer Patterson. The virtues of the choir are well displayed here; extremely well balanced, blended and integrated, with a disciplined sense of ensemble. Diction could be clearer and more forward, though, particularly in the sopranos and altos, and the dynamic range is fairly limited.

Having thus announced its national allegiance, the choir now proceeds to show its strengths in music from the European classical repertoire – Mendelssohn’s lovely Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt (‘Praise the Lord all the World’), Bruckner’s great Os Justi (‘The Mouth of the Just’), and Verdi’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer. The Mendelssohn is sung affectingly, though a strange quality in the singing does manifest itself in a tremulous vibrato from all sections when singing softly. Not quite sure whether this is caused by ‘nerves’ or is a deliberately cultivated feature – I suspect the latter, and it’s not unpleasant, just slightly unusual. In Os Justi, the limited tonal resources of the choir become apparent, as the great crescendi and wondrous outbursts of stepwise descent are under-powered, despite the undoubted sensitivity of the singing.

Another ‘sub-plot’ of the recording is the inclusion of five pieces from Northern Europe. The Estonians Pärt and Tormis are represented by the first’s gently minimalist Magnificat, and the second’s impressively primitivist ‘Curse upon Iron’, which is a setting of a text from the ninth century Kalevala, complete with pounding bass drum. These are done well, though intonation gives problems in the Pärt.

Two pieces of Swedish origin are included; the innocuous To the Mothers of Brazil is originally by the jazz pianist Lars Jansson, and has been arranged for choir with alto saxophone obbligato by Gunnar Eriksson, while Dilemma by Sven-Eric Johanson opposes the men’s and women’s voices. The booklet tells us that the women sing the ‘good’ words of the text, while the men the ‘evil’ ones, but for some reason no translation is given – so unless you have a Swedish dictionary to hand, or a good knowledge of the language, your guess is as good as mine! Nevertheless, this, the shortest work in the programme, is an enchanting and beautifully written little motet.

The Scandinavian contingent is completed by Mäntyjärvi’s wonderful and hilarious Pseudo-Yoik, a take on the traditional Lappish form of the yoik. The choir’s enjoyment of this is easy to hear, and though their performance may not be as totally convincing as that by the Tapiola Chamber Choir on their recent FINLANDIA recording (0927-41563), with the composer himself in the choir, it’s not far off, and draws a delighted response from the audience. (Incidentally, it’s not made clear if all the performances are ‘live’ or whether we are hearing a mixture of concert and studio work.)

Of the South African music, the most impressive for me was the strange Villarosa sarialdi by Thomas Jennefelt. Like Pseudo-Yoik, this has a nonsense text, which in fact looks very much like Latin (and has some real Latin words in it), but has been assembled by the composer purely in order to explore choral and vocal tone. After a couple more ‘popular’ items, the programme closes with an entertaining gospel-style number, Operator, once more featuring the saxophone of Marc Botha..

This choir is a young one and has its limitations, but it does sing very well, and clearly works hard to develop a strong sense of style, whatever the music that is being tackled. Well worth hearing, and a fascinating sidelight on an aspect of contemporary music-making in Africa.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


John Phillips was not quite so impressed

The University of Pretoria Camerata, a mixed choir of 65 students, was officially established in 1968. They give regular concerts on campus and also participate at church services. Every year they undertake concert tours abroad, and besides the standard large-scale works of the Classical and Romantic repertoire, they sing much contemporary music from Africa and abroad. They have won many prizes in international competitions, not only in Africa.

This disc is a curate’s egg of music; there is a wide range of styles of singing and periods of music, but with a preponderance of modern idiom. The problem is that the modern works have often no theme or plan, and one asks the question why write them or even perform them? To my mind music should have a meaning or message, particularly when words or sounds are made; in several of these pieces purpose seems lacking.

The first item "Himne" is a setting of the Te Deum for Chorus and piano, most unusually; the impression I got is one of trying to be too clever with sounds at the expense of meaning. This also applied to Raua Needmine, Dilemma, and Pseudo-Yoik. In Villarosa sarialdi Jennefelt first wrote the music and then wrote his own nonsense text for it (his words!). As is admitted in the booklet, the text may look like some strange form of Italian or Latin, but in fact means nothing at all.

Against these forms, the Mendelssohn, Bruckner and Verdi are moments of sanity and well, if rather blandly, sung. I would have liked to hear more attack and emotion in the performances, and although the choral singing is accurate and tuneful, and the diction good and clear, the whole performance misses that final finish which makes it enjoyable and remarkable. The sopranos tend to some shrillness, but I would have expected more from an Afrikaans choir, and the two part-jazz, part-Gospel songs, I am the voice of Africa and Operator come across very well and are obviously enjoyed by the choir. There are saxophone solos in To the Mothers of Brazil and Deep River, and the performances of the first of these, together with Pseudo-Yoik and Operator are taken from live concerts.

The booklet is informative, but in Raua Needmine only English words are given (it is sung in Estonian), and in Dilemma and Villaros sarialdi no English translations are given.

At full price, this disc is of very limited appeal.

John Portwood

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