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Heaven to Earth
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Agnus Dei [8’26"]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) from Requiem; Requiem æternam [3’23"]; Kyrie [4’08"]
Charles IVES (1874-1954) Psalm 90 [11’10"]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) from Chichester Psalms; Psalm 23* [5’34"]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Credo [3’34"]; Pater noster [1’45"]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) from Five Mystical Songs**: Love bade me welcome [5’37"]; The Call [2’05"]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) from Quattro pezzi sacri: Ave Maria [5’49"]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Friede auf Erden [10’11"]
*François Suhr (treble)
**Charles Robert Stephens (baritone)
The Westminster Choir/Joseph Flummerfelt
Nancianne Parella (organ)
Recorded at Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, New Jersey in June 2002, June 2003 and February 2004 DSD Hybrid Multichannel SACD
AVIE 0046 [62’07"]

This recording features the choir of Westminster Choir College, which is a part of Rider University, New Jersey. All the members are students studying for a career in music though, in fact, as the recordings were made over separate sessions, the personnel of the choir will not be the same throughout this recital. That scarcely matters, for one thing that strikes the listener immediately is the consistency of the singing, which is of very high quality throughout. Joseph Flummerfelt, who retired as conductor of this choir in 2004 after no less than 33 years in charge, is clearly a choral trainer of the first rank.

The recital here recorded originated in a radio programme broadcast on September 11 2002. We read in the liner notes that this programme "was designed to reflect not only on the events in America one year earlier, but on the causes for war and unrest extending back into the twentieth century, and on our hopes for a happier future." Given this premise such works as Ives’ iconoclastic and typically quirky (but very eloquent) setting of Psalm 90 and Barber’s Agnus Dei, which at first sight appear strange bedfellows, sit quite well together, I think.

The Ives is an extremely demanding piece but its difficulties hold no terrors for Flummerfelt’s singers, who perform it not just with assurance but also with great conviction. No less demanding, but in a very different way, is the aforementioned Barber piece. This, too, is done very well though one aspect of the performance perplexes me somewhat. The piece is, of course, a re-working for a capella chorus of the celebrated Adagio for Strings. I am rather at a loss to think why in this account the singers are supplemented by a string ensemble of two each of violins and violas, a cello and a double bass. The decision can’t have been taken because the choir required any support since manifestly they don’t. I can only think that the idea was to enrich the texture but that seems a trifle unnecessary. That said, the strings are fairly unobtrusive.

The other psalm setting on the disc is one of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in which the soloist is a member of the American Boychoir. He sings very well, with clear, unforced tone and a very pure sound. The baritone in the two Vaughan Williams items is similarly pleasing. His tone is forward, every note is placed right in the centre and his diction is admirably clear.

The intense chromatic harmonies of Schoenberg’s ambitious Christmas setting, Friede auf Erden, present another huge challenge but Flummerfelt and his singers deliver the piece very well indeed. The textures, though often very complex, are admirably clear and the choral tone is full and rich, even when, as often happens, the singers are required to sing at the extremes of their registers.

I’ve only singled out a few of the items for specific comment but readers can be assured that to my ears there isn’t a weak link in the programme. Everything is done with fine musicianship and expert choral artistry.

This is a hybrid SACD but I’ve only been able to listen to it as a conventional CD. I found the sound to be exceptionally clear and natural with just the right amount of space and resonance round the voices. The choir is presented in very truthful and musical sound.

There are concise but useful notes in English, French and German and full texts are provided together with a translation (English only) where appropriate.

This is a fine choral CD which will give much pleasure if the eclectic but thoughtful programme appeals. Recommended

John Quinn

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