Shakespeare has inspired
much music, and it's heartwarming that
this recording features many new settings
by living composers. The genre is alive
and well! Chandos is well known for
its championship of British composers
and performers. The Phoenix Bach Choir
are the first American choir to record
for them, thus linking Chandos with
the vibrant American choral scene. The
Phoenix Bach Choir was originally founded,
in 1958, by amateurs who sang for sheer
pleasure. These roots in community performance
go deep for enthusiasm still seems to
guide this choir, even though its members
now are accomplished professionals.
The conductor, Charles Bruffy, has extensive
connections in American choral circles.
He worked for some years with Robert
Shaw, whose Chorale also had grassroots
beginnings but went on to win international
Of all Shakespeare's
works, the Tempest has captured the
imagination of composers and musicians
because its texts lends itself so readily
to song. Moreover, the play itself,
with its romance and supernatural whimsy,
tragedy and mystique inspires a range
of musical adaptations. Sibelius had
such ambitious ideas for his version
that he never quite completed it, but
fortunately left some very beautiful
music, recently recorded in a complete
version by BIS. Frank Martin wrote a
three act opera based on the play in
1952-55 for voices and small orchestra.
This was a combination he loved, for
it gave a transparency of sound that
enhanced the subtlety of the voice part.
Here, the Phoenix Choir
give us Martin's Ariel Songs,
from 1950, five songs for a capella
mixed choir – no orchestra at all, the
voices alone providing exquisite patterns
of sound. Unaccompanied singing of music
of this complexity requires deft precision
and agility. The tonal colour in Come
unto these yellow sands blends and
reshapes – synaesthetes, who see visual
colour in music, would be in raptures.
Out of this the watchdog's bark "bow
wow" rises almost like descant.
Martin's version of Full fathom five
is graphic. The undulations of the female
voices evoke an image of seaweed swaying
in the depths, while the mens' voices
follow a more direct rhythm, lovely
backed by the women singing in half
tones. On the words "sea change"
the music itself undergoes a change
"into something rich and strange".
The "ding dong"
refrain is understated, for the fascination
in this song is the polychromatic undulations.
In contrast, "You are three
men of sin" brings all the
voices together for dramatic effect.
The part singing here is very tight,
even the silences precise. The choir
intones "Remember, remember"
while the alto takes up the melody.
The voices execute with accuracy the
quick tempo changes in the sprightly
Where the bee sucks.
To my delight, Jaako
Mäntyjärvi's Full fathom
five was completely different
– grave, solemn and mysterious. The
deepest voices intone "Hark"
as if coming from the depths, and the
bells sound as if from a distance. An
original take on the verse, and effective.
The choral tradition in Finland has
deep roots. Sibelius, Kajanus and others
wrote much for the genre. Mäntyjärvi
is composer in residence for the well
known Tapiola choir, so he understands
performance issues. The composer gives
a deliciously dramatic setting to one
of the few singable texts in Macbeth.
The choir seems to enjoy the mischief
in Double, double, toil and trouble
– it's camp sinister, great fun to sing.
The American composer,
Matthew Harris, has written five
books of Shakespeare songs, covering
texts from a range of plays, even The
Merchant of Venice. Tell me where
is fancy bred has connotations of
medieval masque but is light-hearted.
Amusingly, it provides the choir with
a few more opportunities for "ding
dong". The very melodic It
was a lover and his lass is the
kind of song that sticks in the memory.
The chorus "A hey, ho and a
hey nonny no" has real bounce:
and I find myself singing it quite unconsciously
Hark! Hark! The Lark is a lyrical
charmer but the pop music influenced
O mistress mine! and When
daffodils begin to peer didn't appeal
to me. Perhaps for the same reason,
I didn't relate to the big band sound
of Nils Lindberg's Shall I compare
thee to a summer’s day. Nonetheless,
if they become hits, it might hook a
new audience for Shakespeare and for
More of a challenge
is Dominick Argento's Sonnet No.
LXIV. In the aftermath of 9/11,
a friend sent the composer a copy of
the sonnet. Its painfully apt reference
to "sometime lofty towers I
see down-razed...... Ruin hath taught
me how to ruminate" spurred
the composer to set the sonnet in a
suitably sombre mood. No need for chromatic
pyrotechnics here, but plain ensemble
singing. This, and the reverential Stephen
Sametz setting of When he
shall die may not be elaborate
part-songs, but how different they are
to the traditional sounding O
mistress mine of Alan Murray,
written before 1952.
The choir has a chance
to indulge wholeheartedly in ding
dongs in Vaughan Williams Full
fathom five. The bells start even
before the song, and carry on throughout.
Only with the "sea change"
does the song develop into something
unusual, emphasized by a repeated "strange"
and then the bells come back. In comparison,
even "the bells that ring on
Bredon" seem silent. After
the 9/11 connotations of Sonnet No.
LXIV, The Cloud capp'd towers
take on a colouring neither Shakespeare
nor Vaughan Williams could ever have
envisaged. It may not be in the music,
but our minds, haunted by tragedy, cannot
but twinge somehow at the mention of
"Cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous
palaces ... shall dissolve ... leave
not a rack behind".
This recording is clear
and open sounding, produced in hybrid
SACD. The singing is enthusiastic,
full of vigour. The selling point will
be the Frank Martin Ariel Songs,
although there are at least three
versions around, one of which is by
The Sixteen and Harry Christophers.
However, The Phoenix Choir has a bracing
freshness which is quite charming –
and this is the only readily available
recording of Harris's It was a lover
and his lass. You don't want to
miss that even if "a hey and
a ho and a hey nonny no" spins
around your head for days and drives
you to distraction.