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Capriccio

Vienna Boys’ Choir - Sacred Choral Music
HANDEL From Messiah, Hallelujah
MOZART Ave verum Corpus
MOZART From "Coronation" Mass, Gloria
SCHUBERT Ave Maria
HAYDN from The Creation, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes
Johann Ritter VON HERBECK Pueri concinite
HANDEL From Messiah, For Unto Us a Child is Born
BACH From Cantata BWV 21, Sei nun wieder zufrieden
MOZART, from Requiem, Dies irae; Lacrimosa
BRUCKNER Ave Maria
HAYDN from The Creation, Von deiner Güt, o Herr und Gott
MOZART from Requiem, Benedictus
HUMPERDINCK Abendsegen
HANDEL from Messiah, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain – Amen
Academy of London, Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and others/Peter Marschik; Helmuth Froschauer
Recorded at various locations between 1993 and 1995
SACD
CAPRICCIO 71 020 [60.02]

I work with choirs in my other life, with children too, and not having heard the Vienna Boys’ Choir for many years I came to this disc with high expectations. It is a compilation originating from several sources, including concerts given in Birmingham and London in November 1994. All the performances are of this kind of vintage, so it cannot be said that the disc represents the choir as it sounds today.

The choice of repertoire is strange. A glance at the list of pieces shows that most of them are extracts from major choral works requiring men’s voices, provided here by the Chorus Viennensis. Many feature significant participation from soloists too, all of whom are named in the accompanying booklet which otherwise features a short essay on the history of the choir.

In the event I found this disc disappointing. Firmly of the opinion that critics are duty-bound to avoid immoderate language, I nonetheless feel obliged to say that this disc opens with what is surely the most inept performance of the "Hallelujah Chorus" I’ve ever heard. The opening is ponderous and heavy, the tempo reminiscent of the worst of parish church Messiah performances from the sixties. Within the space of a few bars we are aware that the conductor is moving the music forward, and this progressive accelerando continues throughout the piece until at the end we are within a hairsbreadth of Paul McCreech’s breakneck speed on his superb DG reading. Curiously, in spite of this imposed tempo manipulation, the performance is almost totally lacking in that cumulative excitement which this overdone but sensational piece possesses. A grotesque pulling up for the final cadence completes the overall picture. The chosen tempo for the second Messiah extract "For unto us a child is born", is positively perverse (4.51 against McCreech’s admittedly extreme 3.36) and it would take a conductor of genius – in this context Sargent or Beecham – to inject the essential dancing, laughing quality the music requires. Given the absence of the essence of the music here there seems little point in drawing attention to other strange interpretative decisions on the conductor’s part. There is more of this kind of thing, though – double-dotted notes never heard elsewhere, sudden pianos and so on – in the final chorus from Messiah which closes the disc; moreover the final "Amen" is so rushed and lacking in grandeur that the music is transformed into something almost comical.

Sadly, the same comments seem appropriate for most of the extracts from major works. In "The Heavens are Telling" from The Creation we note the same impatient manner of imposing tension on music which easily has enough of its own if only we respect the composer’s markings to the letter. And given the subsidiary role of the chorus the second extract from Haydn’s masterpiece seems a strange choice indeed for a disc of this kind. I didn’t know the extract from Bach’s Cantata BWV 21, but here too (listening without a score and out of context) the rhythmic articulation seems intolerably heavy and ponderous.

Mozart’s wonderful, if ubiquitous, Ave Verum works very well, the choir entering well into the intense spirituality of the piece. A pity about the overdone legato which leads to curiosities of text such as "snatum" instead of "natum". The Gloria from the Coronation Mass, taken at a lively tempo, also fares well, as does the Benedictus, though the choir sings only a few bars – the Hosannas – the rest being taken by solo voices. The overall conception is perhaps large-scale compared to current practice, but this doesn’t bother the present listener too much. I had similar reactions to the extracts from the Requiem, the one urgent and dramatic, the other properly weeping, leading me to the view that the conductor sympathies lie with this composer; he is less fearful, it would seem, that simply allowing the music to speak for itself will lead to an unconvincing result.

Bruckner’s sublime Ave Maria is well done, though attack on initial consonants is less than unanimous when judged against the highest standards of other choirs.

Two pieces are conducted by Helmuth Froschauer. His arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria begins with a soloist drawn from the choir. Intonation is immaculate and in other repertoire his voluptuous tone could be shown off to huge advantage. Here, however, the reading of the piece is more akin to a love song, with little of the simple, devotional quality of Schubert’s view of the text, and I listened to this performance with something akin to revulsion. There is some gorgeously open-throated singing from another unnamed solo chorister in Ritter von Herbeck’s Pueri concinite and from two others in Humperdinck’s beautiful duet. In the event, regretful though it be, these were the only two pieces on the disc which gave this reviewer any pleasure.

The recordings took place in six different venues, but the sound is always vivid and unusually immediate. I played the disc on a normal CD player and therefore cannot comment on its SACD qualities.

William Hedley



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