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Saint Louis Commissions
Ned ROREM (b. 1923) Ode to Man (2005) [6:59]
Clare MACLEAN (b. 1958) os anthos chortou (2004) [3:27]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) The Shepheardes Calender [11:47]
Sasha JOHNSON MANNING Requiem (2006) [39:13]
The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus/Philip Barnes
rec. 5-8 November 2006, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, St. Louis. DDD
Texts and English translations included
REGENT REGCD255 [61:26]


Experience Classicsonline

The Saint Louis Chamber Choir was founded in 1956 by the British organist, Ronald Arnatt. Currently they are led by another British musician, Philip Barnes, who took over the direction of the choir shortly after moving to work in the USA in 1988. The choir boasts a membership of forty singers, though additional associate members also took part in at least some of the items on this recording.

The choir has made something of a habit of commissioning new pieces and, as the title of this CD indicates, all four works included here were written for them. With the exception of three movements from Requiem all the recordings are premières. All the pieces are for unaccompanied chorus. Three of the composers have had close associations with the choir: Judith Bingham has written at least two pieces for them while both Clare Maclean and Sasha Johnson Manning have held the post of composer-in-residence.

The three female composers represented here are all experienced singers as well as composers. To the best of my knowledge Ned Rorem has never been a professional singer but, as his choral works and his many art songs attest, he has a natural affinity with the human voice – and with words. In Ode to Man he sets some verse from Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. In keeping with the traditional way of writing for Greek chorus, these four verses are paired as strophe and antistrophe. The first pair is quite vigorous. The second pair is taken at a slower pace. The music of Section III is beautifully smooth and lyrical, with translucent textures. Section IV is also lyrical and, arguably, even more impressive than its predecessor, building to an ardent climax.

There’s a connection between Ned Rorem and the work by New Zealand-born Clare Maclean. This piece was commissioned by the Saint Louis choir to be included in the same concert as a performance of Rorem’s Four Madrigals on texts by Sappho. Maclean aptly chose to set words by Sappho also but her setting is in Greek. The music has consistent energy and dances along. The ending, which is somewhat abrupt and enigmatic, comes as something of a surprise.

Not long ago I reviewed and enjoyed a collection of choral music by Judith Bingham. The work chosen here by the Saint Louis choir makes an equally strong impression. The three movements, depict, as Philip Barnes explains, “the challenges of Elizabethan [English] country life.” The first and last movements set words by Edmund Spenser while the middle section of the piece sets a seventeenth-century American version of Psalm 23. The writing for voices is consistently interesting, featuring some fascinating but never outlandish choral textures. Having spent some time as a member of the BBC Singers Miss Bingham writes with an intuitive and practical understanding of choirs, it seems to me. The three movements are suitably contrasted. The first, ‘Winter’, begins with what Philip Barnes rightly describes as “abrasive vocal lines and chilling harmony”. The quiet close of this impressive movement is suggestive of the bleakness of winter. ‘Spring’, which follows, is much calmer. The concluding movement, ‘Autumn’, is mainly warm and relaxed in character. Through this movement a lilting Somerset folk tune runs like a thread. I was very taken with this work by Judith Bingham.

The most substantial piece on the disc is the Requiem of Sasha Johnson Manning. This English composer is another active singer and also a choir conductor in her own right. She’s had a lengthy association with the Saint Louis choir, for whom she first wrote music in 1998. Not long after that she was named their first composer-in-residence, a post she held until 2006. Her Requiem has been completed incrementally. Some of the movements were performed separately over the last few years by the choir and they have previously recorded the first two movements and the sixth of what eventually became an eight-movement composition.

This Requiem is unusual in its construction. The first three movements – ‘Requiem Aeterna’. ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Out of the Deep’ (Psalm 30) – are all scored for SSATB. Then comes a setting for men’s voices of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Let down the bars. O Death’, after which the ladies sing Oscar Wilde’s Sonnet: On hearing the ‘Dies Irae’ in the Sistine Chapel. Then comes a movement in which the ladies sing, in Spanish, a poem by St. John of the Cross, which is combined with a male voice setting of the Nunc Dimittis. The penultimate movement is a setting for two mixed choirs of Walt Whitman’s Toward the Unknown Region. The full choir comes together for the last movement, ‘Lux Aeterna’. I think it’s useful to list the movements in this way to show not only that this Requiem is somewhat eclectic in terms of the words set but also how Miss Johnson Manning imaginatively varies the disposition of her forces.

The music is primarily lyrical and thoughtful in tone. Most of the time it’s in slow or moderate tempo, as you might expect. However, in the ‘Dies Irae’, which sets only two stanzas of the sequence, the music is much more dynamic and rather exciting. The palette of choral sounds that Miss Johnson Manning produces is consistently fastidious. In the opening movement I like the light textures that result from the use of high voices or getting the lower voices to sing at the top end of their registers. The setting of Psalm 30 (movement III) is quite subdued for the most part and I admired this pensive meditation.

The Dickinson setting (IV) is short and in it, as Philip Barnes says, the singers seem “warmly [to] embrace death”. It’s a most effective contrast to follow this with the chaste sounds of female voices only in V. Philip Barnes says that they “appeal for [death’s] postponement” but the appeal is gentle in nature. There’s a short soprano solo at the words “A bird at evening flying to its nest”, which is beautifully rendered. This mainly calm movement contains some beautiful music. The combination of Spanish and Latin in VI adds spice to the music, which grows more complex and ecstatic as the movement unfolds. The poem and the canticle are very neatly juxtaposed in a most imaginative way. In some ways the final movement (VIII) is the most satisfying. The music is tranquil and flowing and the last three minutes or so have a particular degree of warmth and radiance. At the very end a series of rich chords brings the work to a beatific close. This Requiem is a lovely, thoughtful and eminently approachable piece. I should imagine that it’s quite demanding to sing, not least in terms of sustaining the lines and keeping the pitch. Suffice to say that the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus sounds to be fully equal to the task.

Throughout the whole programme, in fact, the choir’s singing is distinguished and the sounds that they make fall most pleasingly on the ear. Philip Barnes has clearly trained them extremely well and he directs the performances with taste and commitment. Anyone who relishes top quality unaccompanied choral singing will find much to enjoy here. The choice of music is highly commendable also. All of the music on this disc is very worthy of dissemination to a wide audience and I hope that this CD release will achieve that objective. The recorded sound is highly sympathetic. The engineers have captured the natural resonance of the church skilfully and have used it to add a natural bloom to the sound while retaining admirable clarity. Useful booklet notes complete a notable release.

John Quinn

Further information about the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus is at



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