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Our American Journey
Traditional Appalachian: ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’* [4’16"]
Juan de LIENAS (fl. c.1620-1650): ‘Credidi’ [6’31"]
Juan Gutiérrez de PADILLA (c. 1590 – 1664): ‘Versa est in luctum’ [2’45"]
Traditional: ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken* (c1827) [2’54"]
William BILLINGS (1746 – 1800): David’s Lamentation’ (c1800)* [2’18"]
A. M. CAGLE (1884-1968): ‘Soar Away’ (1935) [2’21"]
Steven STUCKY (b. 1949): ‘Whispers’ [6’19"]
Jackson HILL (b. 1941): Voices of Autumn’ (1982) [4’42"]
Brent Michael DAVIDS (b. 1959] ‘The Un-Covered Wagon’ [8’04"]
William HAWLEY (b. 1950): ‘Fuggi, fuggi, dolor’ [3’25"]; ‘Labbra vermiglie e belle’ [4’29"] (Both from The Rime of Tasso (2000))
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864): ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’ ** [3’09"]; ‘Camptown Races’ *** [2’27"]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) and Ira GERSHWIN (1896-1983): ‘Love walked in’ ** [5’00"]
Ann RONELL (1908-1993): Willow Weep for Me’ * [3’40"]
Doyle LAWSON, Charles WALLER and Robert YATES: ‘Calling My Children Home* [5’11"]
Traditional: ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ * [3’39"]
Traditional: I’m a Pilgrim * [5’21"]
* Arranged/ Adapted by Joseph Jennings
** Arranged by Gene Puerling
*** Arranged by Jack Halloran
Chanticleer directed by Joseph Jennings
Recorded at St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco, California, 24 –31 July 2002
TELDEC 0927-48556-2 [77’52"]

The twelve-strong male voice ensemble, Chanticleer, offer here an eclectic survey of some elements of American music covering a period of nearly four centuries.

I should say, at the outset, that in terms of sheer excellence of execution this is just about the finest disc of choral music to have come my way for quite some time. Balance, tuning, diction and tone quality are flawless and if you are an admirer of this ensemble you probably need read no further. However, if the quality of the singing is consistently at the highest level the repertoire is a bit more variable and some items may not appeal to all tastes.

The earlier repertoire is uniformly successful as far as I am concerned. The opening ‘Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ is about as far as one could get from Cym Rhonnda. The familiar text is sung a capella (as is everything on the disc except the last item of all) and the traditional melody heard here is uncommonly haunting. The two following items are both from the Spanish American polyphonic tradition. ‘Credidi’ (track 2), a setting of Psalm 115 employs two four-part choirs and the strands of polyphony build impressively and, it seems, inexorably to an exuberant ‘Gloria Patri’. The motet by Padilla (track 3) forms an excellent contrast, being more solemn and reflective. Both pieces receive performances which are beautifully judged.

William Billing’s ‘David’s Lamentation’ (track 5) has a searing opening and some listeners may be disconcerted, as I was on first hearing, by the plangent, nasal tone of the falsettists on the top line. I was not entirely persuaded by what I assume to be an authentic, period New England accent adopted by the singers. This is far removed from Thomas Weelkes but it’s a fine piece. What I might call the "primitive" American accent sits more easily, I think, with Cagle’s ‘Soar Away’ (track 6), an early twentieth century slant on the old shape-note style of singing. It’s a robust piece which is strongly projected by Chanticleer.

The programme then moves into more contemporary repertoire and here, I think, the content is of more mixed interest. I was greatly taken with Steven Stucky’s ‘Whispers’ (track 7), an ingenious piece which takes as its inspiration William Byrd’s motet Ave Verum Corpus (1605). Stucky refracts Byrd’s music as it were through a prism in a most affecting and atmospheric setting of words by Walt Whitman. It sounds fiendishly difficult to sing but clearly holds no terrors for Chanticleer. A fascinating piece and one of the highlights of the recital.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Jackson Hill’s ‘Voices of Autumn’ (track 8). Hill is apparently much influenced by Japanese music (the text of this piece is Japanese) and, the annotator tells us, this work includes a number of Japanese stylistic devices including glissandi and "uses deliberate word painting in making musical reference to footsteps in the fallen leaves and in the cry of the stag". That’s as may be, but I’m afraid I found it was a piece which didn’t seem to get anywhere. But it’s greatly to be preferred, I think, to Brent Michael David’s, ‘The Uncovered Wagon’ (track 9). David is a Mohican and he has tried to invoke the sounds of traditional North American ceremonial music in vocal terms. Others may well find much more in the piece than I did but though Chanticleer sound fully engaged by the piece I’m afraid I wasn’t. The two pieces by William Hawley (tracks 10 and 11) are much more firmly rooted in choral tradition and, unlike David, he actually require the singers to sing all the time. I found these pieces were much more grateful on the ear and accessible (though they are far from straightforward).

The lighter side of Chanticleer’s repertoire is illustrated by arrangements of songs by Foster, Gershwin and Ronell. If you like close harmony singing, you’ll warm to these. They are all expert arrangements, expertly performed though I must say I found ‘Camptown Races’ just a touch precious. The closing number on the CD, the only one which is accompanied, is an arrangement of a spiritual by Chanticleer’s director, Joseph Jennings, who not only sings solo but also provides the piano accompaniment. I have to say I found this somewhat repetitive and predictable and it rather outstayed its welcome. I can imagine it working well as an encore at a concert but I don’t think it bears repeated listening.

The penultimate number, however is a very different matter. ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ (track 17) is one of two examples of ‘Bluegrass’ music in this programme. It is a deeply affecting piece, hauntingly sung, and it most emphatically does stand up to repeated listening; indeed, it demands to be heard again and I have played it many times, always with great pleasure. I should say that the other ‘Bluegrass’ piece, ‘Calling My Children Home’ (track 16) is also extremely fine.

So this recital is something of a mixed bag, containing several "hits" and a couple of definite "misses". However, as every listener reacts differently to individual pieces others may take a diametrically opposite view to mine as regards the repertoire. I hope, however, that there will be no dispute as to the quality of the performances, which are uniformly excellent and are captured in fine sound. Full texts and translations are provided together with notes. However, be warned, the typeface is absurdly small, making the words difficult to read unless your eyes are a lots sharper than mine (or your spectacles a lot more powerful.)

Despite my reservations about a few of the pieces this is a very fine disc by an outstanding ensemble. It has given me much pleasure and, in recommending it strongly, I hope that others will enjoy it as much.

John Quinn

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