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Copland and his American Contemporaries
Adolphus HAILSTORK (b. 1941) The Song of Deborah (1994) [6:01]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) In the Beginning* (1947) [17:00]
Libby LARSEN (b. 1950) I Will Sing and Raise a Psalm (1995)[4:46]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943) O magnum mysterium (1994) [6:09]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923) O Deus, ego amo te (1973) [3:38]; Oratio patris condren: O Jesu Vivens in Maria (1973) [2:01]; Thee, God! (1973) [2:58]
Charles IVES (1875-1954) Psalm 67 (1894? rev. 1898) [2:26]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) The Dove Descending (1962) [2:26]; Mass (1944 - 1948) [17:05]
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Steal Away (from A Child of Our Time) (1941) [3:20]
*Katherine Bond (mezzo)
The Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
rec. New College Chapel, Oxford, 11-15 July 2005. DDD
AVIE AV 2086 [68:00]


This is, I believe, the final release in a series of three CDs. I've already reviewed and greatly enjoyed the two previous disc, one devoted to Poulenc and his French contemporaries review and the other given over to music by James MacMillan and other modern British composers review. In fact the latter disc was so impressive that I selected it as one of my Recordings of the Year for 2006. There's a great deal to commend this latest volume too, although there are a couple of reasons that, for me, make it marginally less successful.

One problem I have with it, and which, I stress, is very subjective, concerns the make-up of the programme. Edward Higginbottom justifies the inclusion of music by Stravinsky on the grounds that he settled in America in 1940. That's undeniably true but if the music of his Mass has any national accent it's surely that of his native Russia. And just because Tippett had a "fascination with all things American", as Arnold Whittall says in his notes, I don't think an arrangement even of a Spiritual by an English composer merits inclusion on a disc which is supposed to be devoted to American music. I only make this point because there is music by several native American composers that could more usefully have been included instead. One thinks of Dominick Argento, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Randall Thompson or Virgil Thomson. But that's a very personal view and other collectors may take a different stance.

The other issue with the disc concerns recorded balance. This is the only one of the three discs that was recorded on the choir's home turf in Oxford. The previous volumes were taken down, by the same engineer, in what I am sure were more spacious acoustics in L'Abbaye de Saint Michel-en-Thierache (Poulenc) and Douai Abbey, Berkshire (MacMillan). It seems that the change to New College Chapel has meant that the choir is much more closely recorded. One very obvious effect of this is that the choir's strong treble line is very much more to the fore than was the case with the companion discs. For my taste the boys, excellently though they sing, are often too prominent.

Turning to the music and the performances, the programme contains two substantial works, one each by Stravinsky and Copland. Stravinsky's Mass dates from the 1940s, after he had settled in the USA. The accompaniment for five each of wind and brass instruments contributes significantly to the air of austerity married to piquancy that pervades the piece. It's a pithy setting, containing not a single superfluous note. For me it's a work to admire rather than love. Higginbottom directs a strongly and purposeful performance and the cutting edge of his trebles is very appropriate. Rightly, he insists on and obtains sharply delineated rhythms, always an essential element of successful Stravinsky performance.

Copland's In the Beginning is one of his few works for unaccompanied choir and it's always struck me as a fine piece. This newcomer has competition on the same label from Gloucester Cathedral Choir on a disc released last year. review. The recordings are very different for the Gloucester choir are recorded at a greater distance from the microphones in the much more spacious acoustic of their home cathedral. In terms of the performances, both are very good. Both Higginbottom and Andrew Nethsingha (Gloucester) have the measure of the piece and encourage their respective choirs to put it across well. Both performances have the benefit of excellent young British mezzos and I really would be most reluctant to express a preference between Frances Bourne (Gloucester) and Katherine Bond on the New College disc.

New College offer us some shorter American pieces, some of which are not very well known. That's not a description that could be applied to Morten Lauridsen's marvellous O magnum mysterium. Indeed, much though I love it, I do wonder if it's not in danger of over-exposure on disc. As it happens there's some Oxbridge rivalry to enjoy here for the piece is also included on a recent Hyperion release from St. John's College Choir under David Hill review. On this occasion I think that victory has to go to the Light Blues. David Hill adopts - and justifies - a more spacious tempo than Higginbottom, and his choir is a bit more distantly and certainly more atmospherically recorded. Crucially, St. John's also seem to offer more in the way of dynamic control and variety and, at least as recorded, manage much quieter singing where called for, greatly to the music's advantage. There were also a couple of instances between 4:01 and 4:14 where, most unusually, it sounded as if the New College trebles were a touch fallible.

I salute Dr. Higginbottom for including some music by Ned Rorem, one of the very finest American composers of vocal music. Though not billed as such on the track-listing, the three items offered here form a set, Rorem's Three Motets on Poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins. Here again there's fairly recent competition in the form of a Black Box disc by Harvard University Choir review. By a nice symmetry - or irony - the conductor on that release is Murray Somerville. Not only was he an Organ Scholar at New College some years ago but also his support for this disc by his old college is specifically acknowledged in the booklet. The Harvard recording differs from the new release in that the American choir includes women's voices. Listening to the two discs I came to the conclusion that honours were pretty even. O Deus, ego amo te is treated more spaciously on the Harvard disc. The Oxford choir sings it well but this was another instance when I felt a touch uncomfortable with the prominence of the treble line. They sound too assertive as compared with the Harvard sopranos. In Oratio patris condren: O Jesu Vivens in Maria the American sopranos are again better integrated within their choir than are the New College boys. However, I thought that the Oxford choir captures very well the sophisticated simplicity of this unaccompanied setting. The concluding Thee, God! is a jubilant piece. The New College performance is markedly slower than the Harvard account and at first I thought this might be a drawback. However, Higginbottom's steadier tempo proves to be a shrewd choice. His choir imparts a greater clarity than do their American rivals and they sing the piece with fine fervour. Both performances of these three fine motets have much to offer the listener and, as I said, I think that on balance honours are even by the end.

I enjoyed making the acquaintance of the pieces by Libby Larsen and by the splendidly named Adolphus Hailstork. The anthem by Hailstork is written in a fluent and accessible style. I found it to be most impressive and it's clear that this composer is very comfortable writing for unaccompanied voices. One could say exactly the same of the Larsen work except that it features an important organ part. This jubilant setting of words of St. Francis of Assisi is very successful. The New College choir put us in their debt by letting us hear these unfamiliar pieces in fine, committed performances.

Despite the reservations I've felt bound to express this is a very good disc, which nicely rounds off a most stimulating mini-series. I congratulate Dr. Higginbottom and his excellent choir on putting together three enterprising programmes and executing them so well. Collectors who have acquired the previous two volumes need not hesitate.

John Quinn


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