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Fern Hill – American Choral Music
Williametta SPENCER (b.1932)
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners [2:09]
John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
L’Invitation au Voyage [7:25]
Jean BELMONT (b.1939)
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love [4:03]
The Roadside Fire [4:46]
James MULHOLLAND (b.1935)
A Red, Red Rose [4:11]
Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)
Reincarnations Op.16 [8:36]
John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Fern Hill [18:13]
arr. Conrad SUSA (b.1935)
Shenandoah [3:17]
Jean BELMONT (b.1939)
Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier [3:53]
arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye [4:13]
arr . Mack WILBERG (b.1955)
I’m Goin’ Away [4:38]
arr. Roy RINGWALD (1910 – 1995)
Deep River [2:51]
The Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. The Scottish Rite Temple, Kansas City Missouri USA, 31 May, 1-3 June 1995
NIMBUS NI5449 [68:15]

Experience Classicsonline

The Kansas City Chorale are simply magnificent. I was eager to hear this CD - and frankly anything else they have put on disc - since, by chance, I reviewed their Christmas disc Nativitas last year. All of the excellent opinions I gained about them on that disc are repeated if not amplified here. My only sorrow is that I have discovered them fifteen years after the event! At the time they were a Nimbus exclusive artist but I see from their website that they now record for Chandos and I will be seeking out those discs on the strength of these current performances. Every element of this CD from repertoire to performance to recording to presentation is ideal and a model to any company on how to produce a superb product.
The choir is a 24 strong professional choir (still today) under the direction of Charles Bruffy and are Grammy Award winners – so clearly others knew how good they are even if I didn’t! A slightly unusual aspect of this is that they divide the standard SATB exactly six voices to a part. However, one of their finest and most defining characteristics is the extraordinary tonal blend and balance they achieve. This can be done only by the finest voices taking enormous care – I love the way the balance shifts with the significance of each line’s musical material – voices emerge and sink back into the overall texture in the most natural and seamless of ways. Solos are taken from within the choir and are never less than disarmingly beautiful. Bruffy is committed to the promotion of new American music but please please please do not let the spectre of “contemporary” put you off this disc. This is all repertoire that lies firmly in the post-modern tonal idiom and much of it is ravishingly beguiling. In the midst of repertoire by well-known composers such as Samuel Barber and John Corigliano there are real discoveries by Williametta Spencer and Jean Belmont. The latter is clearly a favourite of the Chorale since she featured on the above-mentioned Nativitas disc.
Rarely have I listened to a disc where every single track was both previously unknown to me and a joyful discovery. Whether it is the sparkling brilliance of Spencer’s At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners or achingly poignant arrangement of Shenandoah by Conrad Susa the chorus match their singing to the style and demands of the music perfectly. Yet at the same time the music never becomes arch or mannered in the way that some over-rehearsed choirs do; the music is always allowed to speak for itself. This is always passionate yet appropriate singing with power (both technical and musical) always in reserve. Dynamics expand effortlessly over an enormous range – this never sounds like the chamber choir that 24 voices would normally dictate it is. Allied to superb diction and an ideal church acoustic – warm yet not overly resonant – this is as aurally enchanting a disc of choral music as I have heard in some time.
John Corigliano contributes two of the biggest pieces on the programme. The first L’Invitation au Voyage is relatively early – 1970 – and thereby dates from a time when I would guess this kind of warmly tonal expressive music was not much favoured by the modern music fraternity. It is achingly beautiful; for sure not the most original choral work you will ever hear – heard ‘blind’ my guess is that most listeners would love the work without coming anywhere close to identifying the composer – if you enjoy the ecstatic choral writing of Vaughan Williams or Holst this will be for you. The work which gives the disc its title Fern Hill is even earlier – written when Corigliano was just 23. This is a setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem of the same title. Has there ever been a more melodious poet and has there ever been a more touching evocation of childhood? This was a work I studied at school and the opening line is one that resonates for me still; Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs, about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green. So full of its own music and rhythm is this poem that the dilemma for any composer is how to set it to more music! In fact, given the power and beauty of his poetry it is remarkable how little has been set relative to its stature. Aside from a Peter Dickinson song-cycle and Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas there is not a huge amount. Corigliano’s setting is a brave attempt and one I am really pleased to have heard but I would have to say I don’t feel it is an unqualified success. Running to eighteen minutes it is a very substantial work – almost a choral tone poem one might say. Corigliano adds a string group with harp and piano. The recording here uses three players to a part which might be to ensure a realistic instrument to voices balance. However, that few players on a line does make for tuning/blending difficulties which is all the more pointed up by the fact that no such problems occur for the choir. I suspect a larger string group would have allowed for a more sensuous mellifluous sound that would have suited the nature of the passionate nostalgia implicit in the text. Also, the innate ‘musicality’ already in the text does seem to undermine what Corigliano can do – he is caught between reinforcing what is already there or working in opposition to it. What is clear is that this is as fine a performance interpretively as one could hope for and having listened to it several times both in preparation for this review and for pure pleasure I feel that I am beginning to get under the skin of the piece. And surely that is how things should be; a combination of instant delight allied to a growing appreciation.
Apart from these works the Barber Reincarnations Op.16 are a considerable find quite unlike any other Barber I know and so invaluable in filling out this important composer’s musical personality. I also enjoyed Jean Belmont’s The Roadside Fire very much. Such a different treatment of the text to the one most collectors will be familiar with in Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel but no less memorable for that. But I would not want to give the impression that any of the works here are less worthy of comment. Six of the fourteen items (including the two Corigliano works) received their world premiere recordings here, further proof of the trailblazing work of the choir and the value of this disc. As mentioned above the production quality is excellent too. For example, the liner booklet (even down to an apt and atmospheric picture on the cover) includes a very interesting and informative note about the works as well as full texts. And when those texts include poems by John Donne, Baudelaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, Burns and Christopher Marlowe apart from Dylan Thomas it is as separate pleasure just to sit and read them in isolation. Having recently been chastised for praising a disc but failing to name the engineer/producer I would love to rectify that here. However, one of Nimbus’ little quirks (I haven’t checked many of their discs to substantiate this claim!) is that they rarely, if ever, name the technical team responsible for a disc. That is a shame because they have done a superb job here – to reiterate a point I made above; I cannot think of a better recording of a choir I have heard in recent years.
A valuable and exciting release of movingly beautiful music sublimely performed.
Nick Barnard

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