Henrik GÓRECKI (b. 1933)
Totus Tuus (1987) [8:38]
Jaakko MÄNTYJÄRVI (b. 1963)
Ave Maria (1991) [2:30]
I was glad (2003) [5:44]
Come Away Death (1984) [3:13]
Coen VERMEEREN (b. 1962)
Keanskes Lêste liet [6:38]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
La Rose Complète [4:13]
Dirait-on* [3 :10]
Sa nuit d’été* [3 :29]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Shower [2:26]
My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land [4:32]
Go, Song of Mine [4:39]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970)
Lux aurumque [3:49]
Water Night [5:02]
Franz BIEBL (1906-2001)
Ave Maria [6:03]
Cantatrix/Geert-Jan van Beijeren Bergen en Henegouwen; Noriko Yabe (piano)*
rec. April, June and August 2008, Nederlands Hervormde Kerk Oosthem (Fryslân). SACD
ALIUD ACDHN0342 [65:34]

Cantatrix, if one interprets the insert note correctly, is a choir of amateur singers which regularly fulfils professional engagements, both at home in the Netherlands and abroad. The list of members contains twenty-nine names. This is the choir’s first recording.

The pages of Górecki’s Totus Tuus are peppered with expression marks leaving no doubt that the piece is to be sung mainly very quietly and very slowly. The music is repetitive, and the conductor may worry lest the audience become restive, but on a good day the intensity and devotional quality of the piece can be maintained right up to the two bars of silence, the second with a pause mark over it, that the composer has placed at the end. In this performance the quiet passages are consistently a notch or two above what is demanded, and the tempi too. The Holst Singers and Stephen Layton, on Hyperion, add almost two and a half minutes to Cantatrix’s timing, and it shows.

Of the three pieces by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (not Mäntyjärvy as printed in the booklet) the Ave Maria features free chanting and whispering of the text, long-held hummed notes and parallel chords. His setting of Shakespeare’s famous song does not, to my ears, even begin to live up to the demands of the words. I was glad is another matter. The composer has found appropriate music for these passages from Psalm 122, and if traditional listeners are surprised that it’s nothing like Parry, well, why would it be? The pronunciation of the text, whilst acceptable, betrays the fact that the singers are not native English speakers.

Górecki, Mäntyjärvi, Lauridsen and Whitacre all belong to that unofficial school of composers who bring pleasure to professional and amateur choral singers by way of approachable and singable music which nonetheless remains recognisably modern. Let us now add to the list the name of Dutch composer Coen Vermeeren. His website reveals him to be a composer of mainly sacred choral music, but Keanskes Lêste liet (“Keanske’s Last Song”) is written to a secular text in the Frisian language by Gerrit Breteler. The work is extremely well written for the choir, coping well at one point with some dangerous onomatopoeia – bell sounds – and featuring rather more in the way of harmonic surprises than is often the case in this “unofficial school”.

The actual sound of Morten Lauridsen’s music is so beautiful that one sometimes feels manipulated by it. He has a sure understanding of the right moment to add a crescendo or fortissimo too, so that even when the head complains that this is altogether too sweet for comfort, the heart tends to overrule it. La Rose complète and Dirait-on are the last two songs in a cycle of five entitled Les Chansons des Roses. In the complete work only the fifth song is accompanied, the piano stealing in on the last chord of the fourth song; the final one then following without a break. This is nerve-wracking for the conductor: pitch only needs to have sunk by a quarter of a tone for it to be audible. Cantatrix do not attempt that here. All three Lauridsen pieces are absolutely gorgeous, and the soft-toned writing seems particularly suited to this choir, making these some of the finest performances on the disc. The conductor has chosen a very rapid tempo for Dirait-on though, transforming it into something other than what we are used to.

Elgar’s part songs sit uneasily in this company. He needed a larger canvas on which to spread his thoughts, and these works are difficult to bring off. In My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, a less consistently emphatic push on the first beat of the repeated rhythmic cell would have helped give the performance a more idiomatic feel, and though Go, song of Mine begins well, the choir does not sound fully at ease thereafter, and the final, single word, “Go” is sung as if the choir doesn’t quite believe in it.

Gorgeous is again a word which comes to mind in connection with the music of Eric Whitacre, and though both of the pieces on this disc have gained wide currency, I find them less compelling than the rest of the programme. One lush, multi-voiced chord follows another, creating lots of atmosphere, but repeated hearing doesn’t reveal much more than this. Neither is there much in the way of melodic writing in either of the works given here.

The programme ends with a choral favourite. Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria exists in various forms. Here, the composer demonstrates his skill at contrasting and combining the men’s and the upper voices. The opening chorus is heard three times, which is pushing it a bit, lovely though it is. It is preceded each time by a short passage of chant from a soloist, not universally well taken here, and the first soloist and the choir are not at all in agreement in respect of pitch. Overall, though, these performances are very fine; occasional (and minimal) tuning problems – in the Mäntyjärvi pieces, for example – and a certain passing “whiteness” of tone are among the few factors that would lead a listener to suspect that these were not professional singers.

The recording, which I have heard only in normal stereo, is atmospheric but close, allowing a few creaks and page turns to be heard. Sibilants are sometimes over-audible. The booklet prints the texts in English or Latin, and the Vermeeren is given in the original language with an English translation. The notes, in three languages, are skimpy and the whole could have been better proofread. One reads that the programme is very varied, hence the CD’s title, but in fact there is not much in the way of variety here, and it may have been unwise to launch the choir’s recording career with a recital programme consisting of so many short works by so many different composers, and in the case of Lauridsen, extracts from larger works which are already available from very accomplished choirs indeed. Nonetheless, Cantatrix is clearly one of the very finest amateur choirs around, and if the programme appeals the disc will bring much pleasure.

William Hedley
A fine first outing on disc for this Dutch amateur choir – if the programme appeals the disc will bring much pleasure.