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Christmas A Cappella. Songs from around the world.
Christian ONYEJI Amuworo ayi out nwa (2005) [2;50]
Wayne ROGERS What Sweeter Music (1998) [6:50]
Arr. J David MOORE Il est Né, le Divin Enfant (2004) [2:41]
Arr. Eleanor DALEY The Huron Carol (2005) [2:59]
John Jacob NILES I Wonder as I Wander (2002) [3:22]
Stephen PAULUS Splendid Jewel (2003) [3:26]
Stacy GARROP Lo Visa Goy (2007) [5:05]
Rosephanye POWELL Who is the baby? (2005) [2:36]
Gwyneth WALKER The Christ-child’s Lullaby (1990) [5:43]
Arr Jerry J TROXELL O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1981) [1:33]
Arr Ian HUMPHRIS Noël nouvelet (1986) [2:01]
Richard PROULX Prayer of the Venerable Bede (1982) [2:37]
Per NØRGÁRD En stjerne er sat (1961) [2:29]
Carol BARNETT Hodie (1998) [3:55]
Enrico OWEGGI Nyathi Onyuol (1996) [3:55]
Chaim PARCHI Aleih Neiri (1990) [3:55]
Arr. James CLEMENS Jingle a cappella (2003) [3:58]
Howard HELVEY O Lux Beatissima (2004) [3:03]
Chicago a cappella
rec. 21 February, 14-15 March, 15-16, 23 April 2008, Bond Chapel. University of Chicago
Original texts and English translations included
CEDILLE CDR 90000 107 [64:10]
Experience Classicsonline

Chicago a cappella is an ensemble of nine singers - two each of sopranos and female altos, two each of tenors and baritones and one bass - founded in 1993. Here they present a programme of Christmas music and, as will be evident from the heading to this review, all the compositions and arrangements are fairly recent.

The singing is technically very proficient and so is the work of the composers and arrangers. The programme is wide ranging - both in the musical and in the geographical sense - and though a lot of the music will be unfamiliar to most listeners several seasonal favourites have been included, albeit wearing new guises.

In the main the arrangements of familiar tunes are inventive and skilful. However, I may as well get my “Bah! Humbug!” moment out of the way immediately. James Clemens joins the long list of musicians who’ve had a go at jazzing up the egregious Jingle Bells. I’m afraid his attempt strikes me as being far too clever by half and at nearly four minutes long it more than outstays its welcome. I think this would be fine to hear once as an encore to a live concert but it palls on repeated listening.

That’s all the more evident because, in a strange piece of programme planning, Chicago a cappella follow this arrangement and end their recital with the piece that strikes me as, by some distance, the loveliest on the disc. Howard Helvey’s O Lux Beatissima is a deceptively simple piece. It’s a rapt setting of some lines from the hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ and these Chicago singers perform it quite beautifully. I don’t pick up the influences of Howells and Vaughan Williams that the anonymous author of the booklet notes detects but it’s still a serene composition.

At the opposite extreme, Christian Oneyji’s Amuworo ayi out nwa is a bouncy, vibrant setting of words from Isaiah but rendered in the Igbo language from the composer’s native Nigeria. This makes an exciting start to the programme. Later on there’s another African piece, this time from Kenya. The words of Enrico Oweggi’s Nyathi Onyuol are a paraphrase of more words from Isaiah, this time in the Luo language, which is spoken in western Kenya. After a quiet start this delightful piece becomes much more lively, featuring not just singing but a “vocal percussionist”!

Weyland Rogers contributes a tender, if somewhat over-long setting of Robert Herrick’s celebrated words. Immediately following this in the programme is Eleanor Daley’s arrangement of the Huron Carol. This strikes me as wholly successful, not least because it doesn’t try to do too much. Instead Miss Daley allows the haunting melody to speak for itself.

The setting by Stephen Paulus is an interesting one, featuring some unexpected harmonic turns. The quiet ending is simply gorgeous. I was intrigued by Gwyneth Walker’s contribution. This is based on a Hebridean folksong and it starts off very simply with a haunting solo voice before growing in complexity.

Quite a few of the pieces are reflective in style. However Rosephayne Powell’s Who is the baby? is more extrovert. Indeed, her piece is in the style of a spiritual. It’s lively and enjoyable.

The performances are extremely accomplished. The singing is clear and scrupulously blended in the manner that one hears from quite a number of similar small American vocal ensembles. But, though I admired the technical proficiency the performances would have benefited, I felt, from a bit more spirit. In fact, dare I say it, it would have been good to hear the occasional rough edge. There’s not a musical hair out of place here but the result is curiously uninvolving. For all the technical assurance and expertise on the part of the performers this immaculately gift-wrapped programme was one that I admired rather than loved.

John Quinn 


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