We learn from the booklet accompanying this disc that the Zurich Boys’ Choir was founded in 1960 by its present conductor, Alphons von Aarburg. It is not attached to any church or school, but the boys meet to rehearse several times each week as well as participating in a “singing camp” during the school holidays. The disc was recorded some fifteen years ago, but the choir is still going strong, and indeed celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, still with the same conductor.
A glance at the programme will confirm that this is a collection of contemplative music. There is a certain sameness of atmosphere as the programme progresses, and the attentive listener will probably wish for a bit more variety. I hesitate to recommend it as background listening, so let me say instead that the mood it creates is more suited to quiet reflection than to undivided attention.
The programme is an interesting and inventive mix of well known and lesser known pieces. It opens with one of the best known of all, the famous Bach and Gounod joint effort. The notes seem to be suggesting that Gounod’s original adaptation of Bach’s Prelude was scored for harp, organ and solo violin, and though this was news to me there seems little reason to doubt it. The present performance adds a solo cello and two vocal parts, and may be a later version by Gounod himself, or indeed a hybrid concoction by the present performers. Either way, the opening notes from the harp come as a surprise, as do the two string soloists when they get in on the act. The soloist, Daniel Perrer, is excellent, and the choir sings perfectly well, but the scoring adds extra sweetener to an already sugary exercise. The cello and harp put in another appearance in Franck’s Panis angelicus, along with the organ, and whilst this may be a bona fide composer’s version - the choir in several parts in the canonic second verse - the effect is romantic and indulgent in a piece which can be very affecting when given simply.
Panis angelicus features some very pleasing solo tenor singing from Frieder Lang, and indeed his presence is one of the strong points of this collection. He is ably supported by the children in Franck’s rather lovely Ave Maria, and he turns in a most sensitive performance of an Ave Maria by Tosti. Another solo Ave Maria, by Arcadelt this time, is certainly beautifully sung, though the authentic performance purists might quibble at one or two stylistic points. I think they might not be totally satisfied with Schütz from Zurich either, at least not in 1995, rhythmically stolid and altogether too smooth for comfort.
The programme features a masterpiece or two, not least the two sublime Bruckner motets. Ave Maria is given a good performance, as is Virgo Jesse, though to my ears the boys do not supply anything like the passion in the soprano line that both pieces require. Most adult choirs find it easier to provide this, and a group such as the Westminster Cathedral Choir manage to find both passion and restraint, a heady mixture. There are one or two slightly uncertain attacks in the upper register here too, and, for this listener, some unpleasant staccato and accented final syllables on the word “hallelujah”. In the Verdi piece, and judged by the standards of the finest children’s choirs, intonation is not always spot-on.
Reger’s lullaby, given in a two-part version unfamiliar to me, and again accompanied by the harp, is a particular pleasure. The Mozart, at a reasonably flowing tempo, goes as far as most performances in avoiding the morose atmosphere which can so easily invade this glorious piece. The harp appears again, along with the organ, in Schubert’s Ave Maria. The young Daniel Perrer again sings beautifully, but this really doesn’t sound much like Schubert. Then, that’s not the point of the disc, which will bring much pleasure to those who enjoy this kind of programme.
Jakob ARKADELT (c. 1500-1568)
Ave Maria [2:10]
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)
Jesus bleibet meine Freude [3:22]
J. S. BACH/Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Ave Maria [5.06]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Ave Maria [3:08]
Virgo Jesse [3:43]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Ave Maria [3:29]
Panis angelicus [3:43]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Ave verum corpus [3.19]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Laudi alla Vergine Maria [5 :24]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Mariae Wiegenlied [2:04]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1635-1921)
Ave Maria [2:04]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ave Maria [4:07]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Lobe den Herren, meine Seele [6:25]
Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916)
Ave Maria [3:13]