This is the fourth CD which the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus and their British director, Philip Barnes, have made for Regent. Two have so far come my way: a stimulating disc of pieces commissioned for the choir in recent years (review
) and a most enterprising collection of Christmas pieces (review
). They’ve also made a recording of choral music by Sir Granville Bantock (REGCD310) but I’ve not heard that and it doesn’t seem that we’ve reviewed it on MusicWeb International, which is a pity. The two previous discs have impressed me not just on account of the interesting repertoire that Philip Barnes has included but also because his choir have performed the music very well indeed.
This new recital, in the words of Philip Barnes, ‘traces the development of the distinctly American voice [in choral music]; it is not exhaustive, but it is representative.’ So, we start with Dudley Buck, who received most of his musical training in Europe – in Leipzig, in fact. His Hymn to Music
sets a translation of a German text written by one Karl Christian Ernst Graf von Bentzel-Sternau (1767-1849), writing as Horatio Coclei. If I were to be flippant I’d say his name is more remarkable than his verse. It’s earnestly Romantic in tone and Buck’s music isn’t much more remarkable; it sounds very Germanic and unexceptional.
Nearly a century separates the composition of Buck’s piece and The Lord is my Shepherd
by Miklós Rózsa, also Leipzig-trained, by coincidence. This piece, like many of the others in this programme, was new to me. It’s a most interesting discovery and an unusually dark-toned, intense setting of this familiar text. Towards the end, at ‘Surely goodness and mercy’ the music becomes warmer and more relaxed and the very end is ecstatic.
The William Schuman work – a Whitman setting - is a pretty demanding piece but, like the rest of the programme, it’s sung with commitment and assurance. It’s also demanding on the listener with astringent harmonies and sharply etched rhythms. Philip Barnes describes this piece as ‘a comprehensive but simple appeal for “peace”’. Bearing in mind the turbulence in US politics round the time it was written I wonder if we might think of it as a Protest Song?
Melissa Dunphy’s piece What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?
is quite remarkable, not least for the choice of text. She sets part of the evidence given in 2009 by an 86-year-old military veteran, Philip Spooner, to a hearing in the Maine State Senate into the Marriage Equality Bill. This elderly man, a life-long Republican, came along to give moving testimony in support of Gay Rights, which he saw as one of the freedoms for which he’d fought in World War II, his experience further coloured, no doubt, by the fact that one of his four sons was gay. Dunphy’s music is unsettling and it’s a very individual setting which respects speech rhythms very well. It’s a thought-provoking piece not least for Spooner’s very moving sentiments.
Less effective, I think, is the setting by Ulysses Kay of Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated letter of condolence to a woman who had lost five sons who had died fighting for the Union army in the Civil War. The trouble I have with this piece is that Lincoln’s words are sung by a baritone and then echoed and elaborated by the choir. To my ears the chromatic music given to the soloist is completely at odds with Lincoln’s words. Kay avoids sentimentality, for which he is to be commended, but doesn’t imbue the words with dignity, I feel: other listeners may react more positively.
I like the way in which Bob Chilcott’s arrangement of a U2 song is followed without a pause by the arrangement of the wonderful spiritual, There is a balm in Gilead
. The two pieces complement each other well. The setting of the Stabat Mater
by Stephen Paulus was written for the St Louis Chamber Chorus. It was designed expressly to complement Palestrina’s 8-part setting of the same text and to be as homophonic and non-repetitive as possible. I like this accessible, well written piece, especially the ecstatic ending.
Roy Harris’s Symphony for Voices
is, no doubt, an important piece but I have reservations about it. Each of its three movements sets words by Walt Whitman and in the first movement the words are some of those set by Vaughan Williams in his Sea Symphony
. Because I’ve sung in that symphony several times I’m pretty familiar with the words but I had great difficulty in making them out - when either the choir or soprano soloist was singing – even though I was trying to follow them in the booklet. Since diction isn’t an issue elsewhere in the programme I’m inclined to blame Harris who seems to me to have written in instrumental terms. Matters are a bit better in the other two movements but clarity of words is still not completely achieved. The third movement contains big, impassioned music but Harris seems to make three lines of text go rather a long way. I’m unconvinced by this piece though Philip Barnes and his choir are committed and skilful advocates.
They finish with a short movement – one of three, it seems – by Howard Helvey setting a poem by a long-time St Louis resident, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). This homophonic music may not break much new ground but it’s warm and pleasing and I wish there had been room for the companion movements.
This is a very interesting and enterprising programme containing a good deal of unfamiliar music – several of the pieces are making their debut on CD. I should imagine that all the music is demanding to sing – and I’m sure it’s demanding to sing it this well. The performances are consistently accomplished and committed; Philip Barnes has clearly done a splendid job in training and motivating his choir. The engineers have obtained very successful results. Philip Barnes himself provides the excellent notes which are both informative and enthusiastic.
The disc maintains the excellent reputation that the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus has won through its previous discs and anyone who is interested in American music should certainly investigate.