Sacred and Profane
see end of review for track listing
RIAS Kammerchor/Marcus Creed
rec. October 2000 (Britten Op. 91, Vaughan Williams, Stanford), September 2001 (Elgar, Britten Op. 27, Delius), Jesus Christ Church, Berlin/Dahlem, Germany
Full track-list at end of review
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG 501734 [55:39]
This Harmonia Mundi reissue of unaccompanied choral music was originally released in April 2002. All written in the twentieth century these eighteen works are a mixture of sacred and profane; hence the title of the release. The release contains some of the most attractive songs in the English choral tradition and apart from the two wordless works by Delius are in each case the composer’s intuitive response to settings of text from a variety of sources. These range from traditional, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Auden, Coleridge, Maikov (adapted by Rosa Newmarch) to Cavalcanti.
Amid war-torn Berlin the RIAS Kammerchor was founded in 1948 by the American-run German language radio station Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (Radio Inside the American Sector). Achieving an international reputation for excellence they continued to perform and kept its name even though RIAS was wound up following German reunification. Currently Hans-Christoph Rademann is its music director but when these recordings were made Marcus Creed held the position. I have heard them several times in Berlin and remain mightily impressed with their exalted standards. In the German capital they can often be found collaborating with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Akademie für Alte Musik.
Marcus Creed has chosen some splendid choral works here and none more impressive than Stanford’s The Blue Bird. Although a Dubliner Stanford was based in England for most of his life. Composed in 1910 and set to words by Mary Coleridge I don’t know a more beautiful part-song than The Blue Bird. This is sensitively sung by the RIAS Kammerchor. That said, it’s hard to match the moving and atmospheric account from the Choir of New College Oxford directed by Edward Higginbottom with, I believe, treble soloist Max Jones. This was recorded in 2000 for Decca.
Benjamin Britten’s Sacred and Profane, Op. 91 settings of Eight Medieval Lyrics for unaccompanied voices is a typically accomplished offering from a composer very much at home with sacred choral music. Written in 1974/75 the eight short songs are a challenging mixture of moods and vocal technique. I especially enjoyed the Kammerchor’s joyously uplifting singing in the crystalline textures of Carol with its secular text. Lasting over eleven minutes here Hymn to St. Cecilia, a W.H. Auden setting in English contains the most concentrated setting here. From 1940/42 the idea of writing a piece for St. Cecilia appealed strongly to Britten who was born on the feast of St. Cecilia who is also the patron saint of music. In this testing score I was struck by the strong focus of the Kammerchor who sing with a high degree of reverential fervour. Their English enunciation is pretty good too.
Elgar’s collection of part-songs deserves to be better known. Here he is represented by three affectionate and evenly matched works. Delius’s wordless Two Unaccompanied Part Songs that he described as To be sung of a summer night on the water are in all truth slight works but with this responsive performance still reveal a certain charm. Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs are set texts from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Vaughan Williams’s friend and biographer Michael Kennedy is right to describe the Three Shakespeare Songs as “minor masterpieces”. The melodically memorable Full Fathom Five with its magical ‘underwater’ vocal effects is much admired and is my favourite of the group. All three are presented here to splendid effect.
The engineers have excelled themselves with warm, clear and well balanced sound. The writing for unaccompanied voices is highly accomplished and the well prepared RIAS Kammerchor performs gloriously. They display real assurance and communicate eloquently with a real sense of the joy of singing. Considering English is not their first language they enunciate their text splendidly.
This is a highly appealing reissue of marvellously performed music in the English choral tradition.
Britten discography & review index
Vaughan Williams review index
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sacred and Profane: Eight Medieval Lyrics for unaccompanied voices, Op. 91, (1974/75):
St. Godric's Hymn [1:41]
I mon waxe wod [0:40]
Lenten is come [2:19]
The long night [1:32]
Yif ic of luve can [2:42]
Ye that pasen by [1:52]
A death [3:03]
Edward ELGAR (1865-1934)
Go, song of mine, Op. 57 (1909) [5:23]
There is sweet music, Op. 53/1 (1907) [4:34]
Love’s tempest, Op. 73/1 (1914) [3:25]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) .
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951):
Full Fathom Five [3:24]
The Cloud-Capp’d Towers [2:22]
Over Hill, Over Dale [1:04]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27 (1940/42) [11:24]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Two Unaccompanied Part Songs (1917):
To be sung of a summer night on the water (Wordless songs)
i) Slow but not dragging [2:23]
ii) Gaily but not quick [1:57]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Bluebird, Op. 119/3 (1910) [3:50]