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.
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
admirers need not hesitate. Other collectors may wish to sample
the musical contents of this high-quality production before
Links to previous reviews of Chanticleer discs: