High Flight
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) Oculi Omnia [2:23]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943) O Nata Lux (1997) [4:12]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970) Lux Aurumque (2000) [3:42]
Bob CHILCOTT Even such is time (1993) [11:02]
Eric WHITACRE Cloudburst** [7:48]
Bob CHILCOTT High Flight* [5:48]
Eric WHITACRE This Marriage [2:45]
Morten LAURIDSEN O Magnum Mysterium (1994)** [6:33]
Eric WHITACRE Alone (2011) [3:32]; The Stolen Child (2008)* [8:50]
Bob CHILCOTT A Thanksgiving (2008)* [3:32]
The King’s Singers; The Concordia Choir/René Clausen
rec. 13-17 May 2011 St. Mary’s Church, Harrow, UK ; *10 May 2010, St Joseph’s Church, Moorhead, MS, USA; **2003 St Joseph’s Church, Moorhead, MS, USA
Original texts and English translations included
This disc features music by three composers whose choral music is currently amongst the most widely performed, certainly in the English-speaking world. It brings together that supremely versatile ensemble, The King’s Singers, and an American choir, The Concordia Choir. Based in Moorhead, Minnesota, the choir has been established since 1920 though I’m sorry to say I don’t think I’ve heard them before. On the evidence of their contributions to this disc that’s my loss because the choir is a highly proficient ensemble. It numbers 72 singers and they’ve clearly been prepared scrupulously by their conductor, René Clausen. He’s been in charge since 1986 and is only the third conductor in the choir’s history.
The programme is built around three works - High Flight, This Stolen Child and A Thanksgiving - which were written for the 40th anniversary of The King’s Singers in 2008 and all of which are scored for the group plus SATB choir.
Fittingly, quite a lot of the music on the disc is by Bob Chilcott, who was a tenor with The King’s Singers for twelve years until 1997 when he left to pursue a career as a full-time composer. Oculi Omnia, written while he was still with the group, I think, is a short setting of a verse from Psalm 145, which I don’t recall hearing before. It’s a lovely piece, beautifully written and, like everything else that The King’s Singers do on this disc, it’s fastidiously performed. However, I’d really like to hear it sung by a “conventional” choir. This performance sounds too studied, too immaculate.
Even such is time sets four poems by e.e.cummings, James Joyce, Philip Larkin and Sir Walter Raleigh – it’s the last of these poems that furnishes the work with its title. I don’t know about this work; maybe it’s because I find the texts by cummings and Joyce pretty impenetrable but this work didn’t really hit the spot for me in the way that Chilcott’s music usually does. One problem may lie with the use of the countertenors – or the way that these particular countertenors sing. Their staccato passages in the first movement, the cummings setting, sound a bit precious at times – the same material appears better integrated and more pleasing when it’s given to lower voices. The Joyce poem, which comes next, is more mellifluous; here the tenors carry a melodic line over a slow-moving chorale in the other parts. The Larkin poem is set in a lively, staccato scherzo and, to conclude, Raleigh’s famous poem, written as he awaited execution, is thoughtfully set.
I was much more taken with High Flight in which, imaginatively, Chilcott brings together some words by the English metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) and lines written by a young wartime Spitfire pilot, John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941) whose words convey the thrill experienced by a young man when flying. At the start of the piece, as The King’s Singers slowly sing Vaughan’s words while the SATB choir provides a murmuring background, Chilcott achieves in his music an extraordinary stillness and sense of anticipation. The music for Magee’s words (from 3:40) is much faster and more urgent. There’s a real contrast between the enthusiasm of youth (Magee) and the reflective tone of a more mature adult (Vaughan) and Chilcott marries the two strands most effectively in a very effective piece. A Thanksgiving is a setting of a well-known prayer of St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253). It’s a very beautiful little piece. Though the music is quite sophisticated Chilcott manages to achieve an air of touching simplicity.

I’ve heard Lauridsen’s lovely O Nata Lux in many performances, ranging from the large choral forces of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (review) to smaller ensembles such as Polyphony (review). The King’s Singers’ version is interesting in that the great clarity of six voices allows one to hear every strand with utter clarity but, as with Chilcott’s Oculi Omnia, I prefer to hear a slightly larger group in this music – a choir the size of Polyphony is the optimum experience, I think. Without wishing to labour the point the same holds true for Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque though his This Marriage works well with six voices.
The excellent Concordia Choir offers two numbers by itself. The first is Lauridsen‘s ubiquitous O Magnum Mysterium. Though I love this rapt piece I do feel it’s in danger of being done to death. That said, the present very fine performance amply vindicates its inclusion here. It also points up, I think, in the greater richness and depth of tone, especially in the quieter passages, what is missing on the first three tracks of this CD. The Concordia Choir also does very well in Whitacre’s quirky Cloudburst.
Whitacre unites both ensembles in The Stolen Child. Here Whitacre sets words by W.B.Yeats, a poem inspired by an Irish legend of faeries tempting a little child to run away with them and the child’s last-minute, futile recognition of what is happening to him. It’s a strange piece, as befits its mythical subject, in which Whitacre writes most imaginatively for voices and produces some intriguing choral textures. The juxtaposition of the small ensemble and the larger choir opens up some fascinating textural possibilities which the composer exploits very cleverly. Alone is a very recent piece, sung by The King’s Singers and written by Whitacre as a companion piece – a prelude – to The Stolen Child. It sets some rather dark and troubled words by Edgar Allan Poe and the music is suitably potent.
This collection includes some very interesting vocal music. I have to admit to some reservations about The King’s Singers. I admire their flawless professionalism but I do wonder if it’s all just a little bit too perfect and rather calculating. Others may not share that view, of course, and it has to be said that the singing of both ensembles is consistently excellent. The recordings were made by three sets of engineers, working at various times in two different locations. However, the results are uniformly good.
John Quinn
A collection of some very interesting vocal music; but is the singing of The King’s Singers just a little bit too perfect?