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Adagio for choir and other choral transcriptions
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Agnus Dei op.11
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Kein Deutsche Himmel (Adagietto from Symphony no.5)
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Immortal Bach (Komm süsser tod, BWV478)
Frideryk CHOPIN (1810-1849) Lacrimosa (Etude op. 10 no.6)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Soupir
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Auf ein altes Bild
Alban BERG (1885-1935) Die Nachtigall
Gustav MAHLER Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Les Angélus
Frideryk CHOPIN Lulajze, Jezuniu (Largo, Piano Sonata op.58)
Accentus Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
Recorded in the Arsenal Hall of Metz, France, February 2001
NAÏVE V4965 [52:22]

Laurence Equilbey and Accentus have a fine pedigree across the musical spectrum, from Sibelius to Boulez, and though those of different tendencies may have reported otherwise, I am happy to concur with Gramophone and the BBC on this excellent disc. The thoughts of Wolf and Chopin arranged for choir didn't exactly get my heart racing but the whole programme turned out to be ingeniously devised and executed. Barber's Adagio is virtually indestructable, whether in typical orchestral format, my preferred original string quartet movement guise or the increasingly familiar choral transcription by the composer himself included here. Would it that Black Hawk Down would do for Breton folk singer Denez Prigent's Gortoz A Ran what Platoon did for Barber's immortal piece.

Maintaining the film theme, the last (re)arrangement of Bach's Come Sweet Death I heard was a brilliant one for guitar on a soundtrack by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Knut Nystedt's version for choir is one of the highlights of the record, despite its unnecessary and trite retitling as Immortal Bach. This also perhaps illustrates the broadness of Equilbey's conception of "romantic masterpieces" as a continuum running all the way from Johann Sebastian through to Alban Berg, a rather more expanded view than perhaps the prevailing one admits. The Mahler pieces were, I suppose, obvious choices but I have to say that the exchange of harp and strings for choral textures in the famous Adagietto is one I regarded as a breath of musical fresh air not as a sacrilegious act. I also welcomed the gorgeous interpretations of Ravel and Debussy, being a great admirer of the quintessential French composers' use of choral forces in Daphnis and the final Nocturne, respectively. The closing Chopin transcription is an absolutely exquisite lullaby, not a million miles removed from the less austere inspirations of the latest generation of Baltic composers, Vasks, Tormis etc. On this evidence, a similar treatment of the Grieg solo piano music could be revelatory. Despite the rather corporate cover, this CD turns out to be anything but a populist gimmick - I could name many discs released this year that offer a far more mundane listening experience. All power to Accentus, I look forward to hearing its back catalogue and future releases alike. Thank you for ears and mind opened! No tunnel vision here!

Neil Horner

Gwyn Parry Jones also listened to this disc

What is this obsession with very S—L—O—W music? The stores are full of CDs entitled ‘Adagio’ or ‘Your 10 best slow movements’ etc. Here comes another, eleven tracks of mostly intense late Romantic music for unaccompanied choir, and I confess it eventually made me feel quite queasy. The Accentus Chamber Choir from France are a splendid outfit – they’d have to be even to attempt much of this music in the recording studio – and their conductor Laurence Equilbey brings a great commitment to everything she and they do together.

But that cannot prevent the essential weakness of many of these arrangements from becoming apparent. The collection begins with Barber’s famous Adagio in its choral version as Agnus Dei. This arrangement was of course made by the composer himself, and is very beautiful and successful, though this version is overripe and unsubtle compared to that of The Corydon Singers (under Matthew Best on Hyperion) who stress the music’s nobility rather than wallowing in its sentiment. You’ll search in vain for any truly pianissimo singing here.

From there on, in terms of the music, things get worse; it was a pretty odd idea to make a choral arrangement of the Mahler "Adagietto" from Symphony no.5. Converting this movement from orchestral to choral texture proves to be an interesting but doomed experiment, principally because the composer’s conception of the work is quintessentially instrumental. The sound of strings and harp is fundamental to the nature of this music, and the choir, despite its fine singing, can do nothing to overcome that problem. Much the same applies to the setting found on track 9 of the wonderful solo song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Admittedly, the soaring soprano of Solange Anorga in the first Mahler piece is quite something, but it doesn’t rescue this number from the aura of ‘kitsch’ that it produces. Much the same holds for the remaining tracks, which are mostly arrangements of piano music or solo songs. There is, thank heavens, one moment of blessed relief, which coincidentally is also the one moment of genuine originality. This is supplied by track 3, unpromisingly called Immortal Bach. This is a re-creation by Knut Nystedt of Bach’s chorale Komm süsser Tod, complete with what sounds like a bird twittering high up in the roof of the Arsenal Hall. Nystedt has blurred the outlines of the chorale with some brilliantly resourceful choral writing, creating some haunting and memorable effects. Disappointingly, the booklet notes have nothing whatever to say about this interesting item or its recording.

Other than that track and the Barber which gives the CD its title, I fear that I found this a well performed but fundamentally ill-conceived issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 



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