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Chanticleer: Sound in Spirit
Jan GILBERT (b. 1946) Incantation from NightChants [5’35”]
Nectarie VLAHUL (1804-1899) Axion Estin [5’45”]
Joseph JENNINGS (b. 1954) Sound in Spirit [1’03”]
Carlos Rafael RIVERA (b. 1970) Motet for 12 Singers [5’44”]
Plainsong, arr. Jennings
Beata [8’28”]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) O Sacrum Convivium [4’31”]
Alfonso X de Castille (1221-1284) arr. Jennings Como Pod’ A Groriosa (Cantiga 391) [9’17”]
Joseph JENNINGS Night Spirit Song [2’41”]
Jan GILBERT NightChant from NightChants [4’13”]
Jackson HILL (b. 1941) In Winter’s Keeping [8’45”]
Giacinto SCELSI (1905-1988) Gloria in Excelsis Deo from Tre canti sacri for eight mixed voices  [4’42”]
Sarah HOPKINS (b. 1958) Past Life Melodies [9’33”]
Patricia Van NESS (b. 1951) Cor Meum Est Templum Sacrum [3’59”]
Jan GILBERT Grace to You from NightChants [5’43”]
Chanticleer/Joseph Jennings
rec. 29 March – 2 April 2005, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61941-2 [79’58”]


Over the last few years I’ve acquired a number of CDs by the American male vocal ensemble, Chanticleer. I’ve enjoyed most of the discs that I’ve heard and I’ve always admired the excellence of the performances greatly. Indeed, I’ve reviewed a couple favourably for Music Web (see links to reviews below). This latest offering from the group once again displays all their vocal virtuosity. Tuning, intonation, balance and blend are all impeccable. However, I have to confess to reservations about some of the music included in the programme.

This is very much a “concept” album, of which more in a moment. It’s also, I suspect, more than one often encounters in vocal recital discs, an album that has been conceived as a programme designed for continuous listening. Indeed, some items follow each other seamlessly. That’s not to say one can’t dip into the contents of the disc but the connections work best, I’m sure, if they are observed by the listener.

As I said, this is a “concept” album, which is based around chant. In a preface to the booklet notes Sylvia Nakkach writes that “Sacred chant nourishes us in ways that we don’t even realise” and that “chanting releases harmonic energy, triggering a spontaneous identification with the sacred.” You may or may not agree with her views but I think it’s important to read her comments in full as they’ve clearly inspired much of the programme planning here. Chanticleer’s Music Director, Joseph Jennings, would appear to subscribe to Ms Nakkach’s views. In a note about his own work, Beata, a very effective arrangement, almost a fantasy, based on a fragment of plainchant, he writes thus: “[Chant] provides a “sound corridor” through which both the singer and the listener can enter into an unknown and mysterious realm. It leads into a place of beauty and serenity and into a presence that transcends religiosity. It accompanies the journey from believing to knowing.” Well, I’m certainly not going to rubbish Mr. Jennings’s views even though I rather think he overstates his case there. But it’s clear that these are the sorts of ideas that have informed the selection of the music on this disc.

The repertoire broadly breaks down into two categories. On the one hand there’s a good deal of recent music. On the other hand we hear several more traditional pieces though some of these have been arranged or adapted in a more contemporary style.

The modern works are successful to varying degrees and probably the listener’s reaction to them will be subjective with everyone having their own likes and dislikes. I’ve already mentioned Joseph Jennings’ own Beata. There’s much I enjoyed and admired about this piece but how I wish he hadn’t felt it necessary to include a pre-recorded snippet of birdsong at the beginning and end! For me, far from adding to the piece, it detracts from the music. Others may see it differently, of course. I’m afraid I don’t feel drawn at all to Scelsi’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Without a doubt the singers need great vocal skill to realise the strange, fragmentary sound-world of this music but I did really wonder if their efforts were justified.

I found myself feeling ambivalent about the extracts from Jan Gilbert’s NightChants. This is actually a work of fourteen sections (of which we hear three) and these different settings are described by the composer as “experimental”. Two of the three included here involve improvisation by a vocal soloist. The third extract, which closes the CD, is in the style of a Byzantine chant. NightChants is described as a “seventy minute theatrical/vocal work” and I wonder how much is lost by not having the visual dimension? It’s unfair, I think, to pass a judgement on just a few extracts from a much larger work and extracts, moreover, heard in a different context from those intended by the composer. However, I have to be honest and say that I was intrigued more than moved by what I heard here. I was completely unenthusiastic, I’m afraid, about Carlos Rafael Rivera’s Motet for 12 Singers. This contains many unnatural vocal noises and effects of a type that I dislike intensely. Why gather together such a fine group of singers and then ask them to misuse their voices in this fashion? I’m sure it’s very clever but it leaves me cold and, despite the detailed note about the piece its meaning eludes me. But I expect that’s my fault and that others will find more in the piece than I did.

Some of the modern pieces worked much better for me. Jackson Hill’s In Winter’s Keeping sets an extremely beautiful seventh-century Japanese poem (in the original language). Hill produces some very exotic and beautiful sounds from his singers; sounds that I find match the style and sense of the poem wonderfully. The piece is stunningly realised by Chanticleer. I also admired very much Cor Meum Est Templum Sacrum by Patricia van Ness. This is a setting of a Latin translation of a poem by the composer herself. I find the poem thoughtful and so too the music. It’s simple and direct and the composer doesn’t require any vocal trickery from her singers. Instead she gives us a happy marriage of words and music. Some may regard it as too traditional and insufficiently daring but for me it communicates much better with the listener than one or two of the other contemporary pieces included here.

The van Ness piece leads us nicely into the more traditional musical fare. Anyone familiar with previous Chanticleer CDs will know that they are superb in music by composers such as Victoria. His six-part O Sacrum Convivium receives a compelling performance here. Joseph Jennings writes in the booklet that Victoria set liturgical texts with “the greatest sensitivity and understanding.” If I may say so, exactly the same description could be applied to the performance of this piece by Jennings and his singers.

Also from the Iberian Peninsula is Como Pod’ A Gloriosa by King Alfonso X of Castille. This medieval monarch was known as ‘The Learned’ and excelled in several intellectual pursuits, including musical composition. This vocal work tells the story of a crippled girl whose infirmity is healed while she sleeps through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. The narrative stanzas are shared between two tenor soloists, who combine for the last stanza, while the choir sing a refrain after each stanza. The piece is arranged by Joseph Jennings. I don’t know if purists would agree with certain aspects of his arrangement. For example, half way through, a small percussion battery, consisting of dumbek, tambourine and finger cymbals, is deployed. Also gradually Jennings expands and enriches the harmonies in the refrain. As I say, it may or may not be “authentic” but I couldn’t care less! It’s tremendously effective and the natural excitement of the story builds marvellously as the story unfolds. This is a splendid, colourful piece and, for me, it’s a highlight of the disc.

However, the highlight for me is Axion Estin by the nineteenth-century Romanian composer, Nectarie Vlahul. This is a setting of the Hymn to the Mother of God from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. This text will be familiar to many listeners from its manifestations in Russian Orthodox liturgy but this setting is different. As a note by the expert in such matters, Ivan Moody, tells us, the liturgy of Romanian Orthodox Christianity has much in common with Greek Orthodoxy but there’s a strong Byzantine influence too. This influence is evident in this piece of music in which microtones play an important part. The piece is slow moving, spare and hypnotic. I found it absolutely fascinating. Never having heard any Romanian Orthodox music, so far as I know, this was something of a revelation. 

So I find this disc something of a mixed affair musically. However, I realise that’s a very subjective view. Some other listeners may take a diametrically opposite view of the contents and others again may respond wholeheartedly to the entire programme, which I must say has been assembled thoughtfully. However, there is nothing mixed about the performance standards, which are without exception of the very highest order. As well as saluting the musicianship of Chanticleer I must also admire their linguistic virtuosity for by my count they sing in four languages, of which only Latin is a familiar one, as well as in English. The recorded sound is excellent and the documentation is comprehensive and includes all texts with English translations.

Chanticleer’s many admirers need not hesitate. Other collectors may wish to sample the musical contents of this high-quality production before investing.

John Quinn

Links to previous reviews of Chanticleer discs:

Our American Journey
How Sweet the Sound



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