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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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Songs of the Soul
Carlos SURINACH (1915 - 1997) Canciones del Alma (Songs of the Soul) (1964)
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548 - 1611) Iste Sanctus; Senex puerum portabat; O Quam Gloriosum; Beati Immaculati
Alan RIDOUT (1934 - 1996) O Flame of Love So Living
Sasha Johnson MANNING (b.1963) Romanca VI
Clare MACLEAN (b.1958) Aunque es de Noche
Geoffrey BURGON (b.1941) But Have Been Found Again (1983)
Carl RÜTTI (b.1949) An den Geist
The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus/Philip Barnes
Recorded St. Margaret of Scotland Church, St. Louis, USA, 23-25 May 2004
GUILD GMCD 7272 [58.09]


Carlos Surinach was born in Barcelona and his studies at the Barcelona Conservatory were followed by periods of study Düsseldorf Conservatory, Cologne Hochschule, and Berlin's Prussian Academy. He moved to the USA in 1951. His principal claim to fame is as a composer for the dance; being used by both Martha Graham and the Joffrey Ballet.

Surinachís music is characterised by his sense of melody and a strong rhythmic vitality. His choral piece, Canciones del Alma, reflects this and it is easy to see why his music was popular with choreographers. Canciones del Alma consists of four settings of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic. St. John used the language of earthly love to describe his visions of divine love.

Surinachís choral pieces reflect this passionate language and mix Spanish, flamenco-influenced rhythms and melodies, with other vibrant influences. The closest parallel that I can think of is with Ginasteraís choral settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, another work written by a Latin composer in exile in the USA.

The enterprising American choral group, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, under its British conductor Philip Barnes, has made Surinachís Canciones del Alma the centrepiece of an enterprising programme based around the poetry of St. John of the Cross.

Alan Ridoutís O Flame of Love so Living sets St. Johnís poetry in the translation by Roy Campbell. Ridout had a long association with the choir of Canterbury Cathedral and he successfully re-creates St. Johnís passionate intensity in a form suitable for an English cathedral. The St. Louis Chamber Chorus successfully capture the rather English rapture of the piece, but I would have liked a little more freedom in the soprano line cantilenas. Here, and in the other English pieces, the choir did not really make enough of the words.

Roy Campbellís translations of St. John of the Cross are also used in Geoffrey Burgonís But have been found again. The piece was written in 1983 for the combined choirs of the Southern Cathedrals Festival in Chichester. I did not find this piece as memorable as some of Burgonís other work. Its resolutely chordal but rich texture, interspersed with solos, did not really appeal to me. Perhaps the eight-part layout needs the larger choral forces and space that the Festival could have brought to it.

Conductor Philip Barnes has also added two more settings of St. Johnís poetry, this time by young composers with whom the choir has a continuing relationship. The St. Louis Chamber Chorus has an enviable track record of performing contemporary music. Sasha Johnson Manning (a pupil of Roger Steptoe) has been commissioned by the chorus to write a Requiem sequence. Her Romance VI is from this work and is an eloquent setting of St. Johnís words; I look forward to hearing the whole thing. Similarly adept is Aunque es de Noche by the New Zealand-born composer Clare MacLean (a pupil of Peter Sculthorpe).

Although not a setting of St. John of the Cross, Carl Ruttiís An den Geist sets a Rilke poem which has a similar atmosphere.

To these contemporary pieces, the choir adds a group of motets by St. John of the Crossís great contemporary Tomas Luis de Victoria, though in fact Victoria set none of St. Johnís poetry; the motets used here set biblical texts. The choir vary their tone for this earlier music, but I found their performances interesting rather than ideal. I would have preferred a smaller group singing with a more direct, focused, open sound. The recording of Iste Sanctus struck me as being a little too sibilant.

Neither Ridout nor Surinach is well represented on CD and this disc would be worth acquiring for these pieces alone. But the performances from the St. Louis Chamber Chorus are entirely creditable. The group would seem to be entirely voluntary and consists of between forty and fifty singers.

Their approach works well in Ridoutís English cathedral-style piece but in the Surinach I could have wished for just a little more Latin bravura, something that does not come easily to Anglophone choirs. However, the choir makes a fine, warm sound and are very responsive to Surinachís highly coloured rhythms. Only occasionally, in the more complex passages, did I wish for a little more clarity of texture from the choir, but this certainly did not mar my enjoyment.

My only real complaint is the way that the CD has been organised. The Surinach pieces have been spread across the disc interspersed with music by other composers. This never really allows the music time to make an impression.

Robert Hugill

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