Songs of Hope
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Singet dem Herrn, BWV225 [13:44]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943) [17:06]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Chichester Psalms (1965) [18:11]
Stephen PAULUS (b. 1949)
A Dream of Time (2008) [13:10]
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Members of the Bach Festival Orchestra/Greg Funfgeld
rec. 21-23 March 2011, First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA
ANALEKTA AN 2 9983 [62:16]

When I received this disc I thought I was going to hear an Israeli choir, but as it turns out, this particular Bethlehem is in Pennsylvania. A hundred choristers or so are listed in the booklet. Whilst I don’t know how many took part in Bach’s superb motet, I do know that I should be reluctant to tackle it with so many singers. In the explosion of joy that is the opening chorus semiquaver runs are not always cleanly articulated. There are enough tentative entries easily audible in the two soprano lines to make one suspect that there are a few elsewhere too, contributing to the overall muddiness of texture. A fairly heavy bass continuo adds to the rather stolid impression. A solo quartet is used in the second section, and they acquit themselves rather well. Once the fast music returns, so do the doubts, and a rather grandiose final rallentando doesn’t help.
It’s possible that fewer singers take part in the Britten, which is a good thing, but sadly I didn’t enjoy this performance very much either. The opening is marked “Measured and mysterious”, but there is little mystery here, and the smooth and unvaried delivery of the intoned text hardly brings out the meaning of the words. There is little characterisation in the faster second section, and the following Hallelujah, at a tempo significantly faster than the composer’s marking, is not at all “Gently moving”. The solos come off quite well, though Rosa Lamoreaux’s rich soprano comes as a bit of a shock to those used the composer’s specified treble. And what a pity that she feels the need to break her final phrase with a breath. The tempo for the tenor’s celebration of flowers is again much faster than the composer asks for, and the music suffers as a result. The soloists are balanced well forward, and the bass takes a step or two to the right before his final phrase. In the rapid chorus listing musical instruments the organ’s held F pedal note is far too loud and the right hand figuration often near-inaudible.
Chichester Psalms is given in the version for organ, harp and percussion. It comes off better on the whole, yet even here, when compared to other performances – Bernstein’s own, King’s College or Clare College on Regis – there’s no denying that they get more swing into the seven-in-a-bar rhythm of the first movement, and more exuberance into the vocal lines. The soloists really should be placed within the choir, but are here given star status again; their final quartet passage merited a retake.
The programme closes with A Dream of Time, composed by Stephen Paulus to celebrate Greg Funfgeld’s twenty-five years at the head of the choir. I don’t think it is only unfamiliarity with the work that gives me the impression that this is the most impressive performance on the disc. Bach and Bethlehem both get a mention in Carl Sandburg’s text, but it is a strange kind of celebration: “The evening star inviolable over the coal mines”, “The blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works” and, the central message, “Hope is a tattered flag and a dream of time.” The musical language is such that listeners wary of modern music have nothing to fear. The choir sings in block chords for much of the piece, and Vaughan Williams is evoked, perhaps unconsciously, when the soprano soloist introduces the words “Dona nobis pacem”. Quite deliberate, however, is the extensive use of the fugue theme to those words that closes Bach’s B minor Mass. There is even a little reference to one of his most famous organ work when his name is mentioned in the text. The work is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, and a short interlude for piano and wind instruments, with its sweetly clashing semitone dissonances and richly voiced piano chords, comes close to the atmosphere of film music. There are many beautiful moments in the work, though, and the ending, with tolling bells, is very effective indeed.
The booklet, in French and English, contains extensive information about the performers and an introductory essay on the music. Texts are available on the Analekta website.
William Hedley

Some good things, and some not so good, in this collection from a big American choir.