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Sacred Songs of Life and Love
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Magnificat [5:36]
Bogoróditse Djévo [1:15]
Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen [12:41]
Algirdas MARTINAITIS (b. 1950)
Alleluia [4:21]
Knut NYSTEDT (1915-2014)
Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op 157 (excerpts) [6:33]
Sven-David SANDSTRÖM (b. 1942)
Four Songs of Love [7:55]
Ivo ANTOGNINI (b. 1963)
I am the rose of Sharon [5:27]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
O salutaris hostia [3:22]
Arvo PÄRT Nunc dimittis [5:03]
South Dakota Chorale/Brian A Schmidt
rec. 2014, St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA
English texts and German translations included
PENTATONE PTC5186530 SACD [53:27]

Based in the city of Sioux Falls, the South Dakota Chorale is a professional SATB ensemble, founded in 2009 by Brian A Schmidt. There are 31 singers: (8/8/8/7). Though I don’t believe this is their debut album I haven’t heard them before. Here they present a programme of music by contemporary European composers, all of whom were living at the time the recordings were made - Knut Nystedt died in December 2014.

The choir makes a strong impression in their first offering. Their delivery of Pärt’s Magnificat is characterised by expert singing. The balances are excellently calibrated; the various parts are clearly heard, as are the words; all sections of the choir sing with firm tone; and there’s an excellent dynamic range. The overall sound of the choir is very pleasing and one is conscious of a natural, clear recording in which the engineers have used the acoustic of the venue intelligently. In short, this is a very responsive choir, expertly directed and the qualities I’ve just noted are apparent throughout their programme. They sing the Magnificat very well indeed, not least the gently luminous conclusion to the piece.

Their other Pärt offerings are equally successful. Bogoróditse Djévo is light and eager, as it should be. The Magnificat antiphons for the seven days prior to Christmas are expertly judged. For example O Schlüssel Davids is ardent while O Morgenstern is gently radiant. The choir returns to the music of the Estonian composer to close their programme with a lovely account of his Nunc dimittis.

I am fairly familiar with the Pärt items but with one exception the remaining music on the programme was new to me – and, in most cases, the composers too. Algirdas Martinaitis is Lithuanian. Like Randall Thompson he uses just the one word in his Alleluia. The piece builds up excitingly from a slow, quiet opening. Does the speed increase or are the note values lessened? It’s hard to say; possibly the latter or, more likely a combination of the two factors. The music relaxes and then gathers pace once more before achieving a soft, slow close. It’s a most interesting piece which I enjoyed encountering, especially in such a fine performance.

The late Norwegian composer, Knut Nystedt will be known to many through his wonderfully imaginative piece, Immortal Bach. Here he is represented by two of the six movements of his 1999 Prayers of Kierkegaard. Brian A Schmidt has chosen the third and sixth movements, which are sung in English. The first, ‘Great are You, O God’ is richly textured at times, elsewhere the music achieves great simplicity. ‘Father in Heaven! You loved us first!’ opens in a strongly declamatory vein and the music is excitingly sung here. Later the piece becomes more subdued. I’ve never heard the complete set of Prayers, which I believe lasts for about 18 minutes but on the evidence of these two extracts I should like to hear it all. I’m slightly disappointed that the full work wasn’t sung on this occasion; there would have been room on the disc

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard music by the Swedish composer, Sven-David Sandström. His Four Songs of Love are short settings, sung in English, from the Song of Songs. These texts invite, nay demand, sensuous treatment from composers and Sandström doesn’t disappoint. His textures are rich, the harmonies often complex yet seductive – the dense chords in the fourth setting, ‘His Left Hand’ offer a case in point. The third setting, ‘Awake, O North Wind’ is particularly imaginative; here, the multiple overlapping vocal parts create an audible illusion of the sound of the wind. These pieces are given a wonderful performance by Schmidt and his excellent choir.

The Swiss composer, Ivo Antognini, has also turned to the Song of Songs for I am the rose of Sharon; indeed, some of the words he sets were also selected by Sandström. This slowly-moving piece features beguiling and imaginative harmonies, which are often unexpected. It seems to me that the music is a fine response to the words. It’s a very beautiful piece. In common with the rest of the music on this programme I shouldn’t imagine it’s easy to sing but the South Dakota Chorale sings it wonderfully well.

In a way I’ve left the best till last. Apart from the Pärt pieces the only music here with which I was previously familiar is O salutaris hostia by the Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds. It cropped up recently on an excellent disc from Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, entirely devoted to the music of Ešenvalds (review). Layton and his choir gave a very fine rendition of the piece and I loved it, so I was thrilled to encounter it again on this disc. Indeed, so exquisite is the music and so wonderful is the South Dakota performance that the first time I listened I immediately replayed the track. The piece calls for two soprano soloists to soar ecstatically over the sound of the rest of the choir and the two sopranos here, Natalie Campbell and Julianna Emanski, sound simply gorgeous, their voices pure and clear. In his notes Brian A Schmidt describes the piece as “another gem of stylistic perfection.” Yes it is; and it receives a gem of a performance here.

This is an enterprising programme. I must admit that’s something that always inclines me favourably towards a disc but the performances have to match up as well and they certainly do here. The South Dakota Chorale is an extremely proficient ensemble. Not only that, their singing is also sensitive. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with this group, which I hope won’t be the last.

The recordings were made in St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls. This is a Roman Catholic cathedral, built 1915-1919. From the pictures I’ve seen on the internet it looks to be quite a substantial, traditional building and I should imagine the acoustic is spacious and resonant. Engineer Jesse Brayman and producer Blanton Alspaugh have produced a lovely sound on this SACD. The choir is reported very truthfully and the acoustic of the building has been used well so that there’s a nice, natural resonance round the choir’s sound but not so much as to risk over-reverberation. This is a very pleasing recording indeed.

Collectors of modern choral music will find this a very rewarding compilation. I look forward to hearing more of the South Dakota Chorale in the future.

John Quinn



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