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American Choral Premieres
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Four Motets, Op. 268 (1973) [11:54]
Egon COHEN (b. 1984)
Stabat Mater (2006) [8:01]
Paul NICHOLSON (b. 1963)
Velum temple (1998) [4:03]
Paul FRENCH (b. 1959)
Who Am I? (2007) [5:37]
Easley BLACKWOOD (b. 1933)
A King James Magnificat (2004) [12:49]
Robert KREUTZ (1922-1996)
Scapulis Suis (1960) [2:07]
William FERRIS (1937-2000)
Lyrica Sacra (1962) [7:32]
William C. WHITE (b. 1983)
Nunc Dimittis (2007) [8:23]
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Behold, My Servant (1973) [8:06]
William Ferris Chorale/Paul French
rec. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, 21-22 May 2007 and 12, 13, 15 May 2008
Texts and English translations included
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR90000109 [64:10]

 

Experience Classicsonline


This choir, established in 1971 and named after their founder, who directed them until his sudden death in 2000, seems to be affiliated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, where Paul French, the Chorale’s director since 2005, is director of music. I’m unsure of the size of the choir but a photograph on their website suggests a membership of around twenty four. From its inception the choir has performed a great deal of contemporary music and it’s appropriate, therefore, that all the music included here should have been written in the last fifty years and much of it by composers who are still living.

The choice of repertoire, all of it unaccompanied, is varied and enterprising and although all the pieces sound challenging for the performers – and some present challenges to the listener as well – all the music is very accessible and interesting. The listener’s appreciation of the music is helped enormously by the fact that the singing is consistently immaculate. The choir blends beautifully, tuning seems to be impeccable, the balance is excellent and diction is crystal clear. In short, this is a first class choir, whose singing gave me great pleasure. I didn’t think I’d come across the William Ferris Chorale before and certainly I hadn’t heard any of the music before – all of the pieces receive their first recordings here. In fact, with the exception of Alan Hovhaness all the composers here represented were new to me.

The programme has a definite Chicago bias. Paul French lives and works there, as did William Ferris, while Paul Nicholson presumably also resides in the city since he is the choir’s accompanist. At least three of the other composers also are based in the city.

One of these is Easley Blackwood and I must confess that I was a mite apprehensive when I saw his name for, though I have never heard any of his music, I have read that much of his output has been atonal and experimental in nature. However, his A King James Magnificat is neither atonal nor experimental. In fact, though very cleverly written, it seems to be rooted very strongly in the American choral tradition. Its title refers to the fact that the text of the Magnificat that Blackwood employs is from the King James Bible. Indeed, all the pieces in this collection that have biblical texts use the King James Version.  Blackwood employs open, almost innocent harmonic language in his setting though the writing is sophisticated, for example in the use of a different key for every verse, though the listener would be hard put to it to spot all the changes. Though the music is modern in tone it seems to me to breathe the same air as the music of the American primitives such as William Billings (1746–1800) and the marvellously named Supply Belcher (1751-1836) and I wonder if this is a conscious act of homage by Blackwood. It’s a most ingenious, varied and attractive setting.

I don’t know if Blackwood wrote a companion setting of the Nunc Dimittis but for this programme one of his pupils, William C White, provides the setting of that canticle instead. His setting is quite unusual – and non-liturgical – for he goes beyond the well-known verses from St Luke’s Gospel that constitute the Song of Simeon. Instead he sets all of verses 25 to 35 of that Gospel, which contains the whole narrative of the encounter between Simeon and the Holy Family. The setting is for six-part choir and it’s a most interesting work, making excellent use of varied rhythms and choral textures.

Egon Cohen was also a composition pupil of Blackwood. He contributes a setting of the Stabat Mater in an English translation. Actually, unlike composers such as Rossini and Verdi, Cohen doesn’t set the whole of this substantial medieval poem, contenting himself with just eight stanzas. The musical material for each verse is different, but grows out of the music for verse one. The music is consistently interesting – note, for example, the piquant harmonic shifts in lines three and six – and illustrates the text well. At the conclusion the music of verse one returns gently in the last line followed by a pair of Amens, unexpectedly but effectively harmonised.

The programme also includes a small triptych of pieces by William Ferris, the founder of the choir. These little sacred pieces fall very pleasingly on the ear and are fastidiously crafted. The choir sings them very well but, then, they sing the entire programme very well. The piece by George Rochberg belongs to his later, tonal phrase. Behold, My Servant draws on three sources for its words: William Blake; the prophet Isaiah; and Psalm 148. In its relatively short span the piece combines some passages of great beauty with some that are powerful and dramatic. It shares with the Blackwood Magnificat a constructive approach to tradition. Like Blackwood, Rochberg here respects the American choral tradition but also puts his own stamp on it, especially through some challenging and unexpected harmonic shifts.

All the pieces on this disc are expertly crafted and fully justify their inclusion in what is a very worthwhile collection. It’s clear that the performances have been scrupulously prepared and they’re immaculately delivered by Paul French and his singers. The recording, made in the Chicago church with which the performers are associated is similarly immaculate, presenting the music in clear, atmospheric sound. The booklet, one of the most clearly printed that I’ve encountered for a long time – these details are important – contains all the texts plus extensive and first class notes by Andrea Lamoreaux.

As I said, I thought at first that I’d not come across the William Ferris Chorale before but in fact a search of my shelves unearthed a 1997 disc of music by Leo Sowerby, including his large-scale choral work, The Throne of God, on which they appear under the direction of their founder (Albany TROY232). I recall the music on that disc as being worthy but not especially memorable. That’s most certainly not an accusation to level against this present offering, which shows this fine choir to good advantage and gives us further proof that some high quality choral music has been written in the USA in recent years.

John Quinn

 


 

 
 


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