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
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
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
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
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.