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God So Loved the World - English Choral Music
Martina Mailänder (organ) Figuralchor Köln/Richard Mailänder
rec. Kathedral Kirche Hellig Kreuz, Bonn-Limperich, St. Lambertus, Düsseldorf, Germany 6-7 & 20-21 November 2015 CARUS 2.016/99 [68:52]
A survey of British choral music by a non-British choir is always to be welcomed. Especially when it is as well-trained and vocally competent as the Figuralchor Köln. The strengths of the choir are rock-solid intonation and a carefully achieved blend across all the voices.
However, I ultimately found this to be a rather bland - albeit beautifully so - recital. The very opening track - an Ave Maria by the 16th century composer Robert Parsons sets the tone. The choir focus on a very beautiful but emotionally detached sound that unfurls around the listener in a technically impressive but strangely uninvolving way. Choirmaster Richard Mailänder seems to have chosen to focus on the means of presenting the music rather than why - the choral technique is all-important. As a consequence there is a disappointingly cramped dynamic range across the whole recital - rarely truly quiet and certainly never louder than beautiful. Mailänder likes to use that little technical trick of lengthening the final closed consonant of a work to add to the aural illusion of an extended resonance around the choir. Once or twice, and judiciously used, this can be a very effective too. Here it just becomes something the choir habitually does and as such falls into the realm of mannerism. Although the title of the disc is "English Choral Music" that should be caveated by the fact that the bulk is pre-19th century - 12 of 19 tracks - and only 3 are from the 20th century and those are early and backward-looking. Of the latter three the highlight - as it always is - is Parry's My Soul there is a country which is No.1 of his marvellous set of Six Songs of Farewell. Quite how this sits in a programme of specifically sacred settings I do not know - Henry Vaughan's text is spiritual rather than overtly sacred in my judgement. Again, this is well sung and carefully moulded but to my ear wholly lacks the sense of the ecstatic and visionary that the finest performances achieve. When you consider the vast amount of magnificent British Choral music that is truly of the 20th Century I think it a great shame that the recital did not include any examples.
Of the repertoire that has been chosen there is a certain stylistic sameness across the centuries - long mellifluous lines sung at moderate speeds - which is underlined by the fact that the choir make not attempt to vary their collective tone or choral colour whether it is a 16th or 19th century work. So the combination of similar vocal style, a limited dynamic range and a similarity of actual works chosen makes this a rather featureless musical landscape. Thomas Weelkes' Gloria in excelsis Deo [track 6] is a case in point. John Elliot Gardiner included it on a Christmas recital disc called Once as I remember. His fresh-voiced Monteverdi choir sound as if they actually mean "Gloria!" with rhythms better sprung and all parts bright and articulate. This German version I could imagine it serving as very high class background music. The majority of the works are sung unaccompanied with a few requiring an organ. The playing of the organ is perfectly good although as heard on my playback system the instrument comes across as rather too bass-heavy with the pedals drowning out much of the rest of the keyboard let alone the choir. Solos taken from within the choir are well sung - this is a very good choral group as I keep repeating.
The very brief liner - a simple tri-fold piece of paper - is in German only with brief biographies and some information about the music and choir. Sung texts in the language they are sung on the disc only – i.e. Latin and English - are included. Partly a function of the acoustic but also the chosen sung style means that the texts are rarely very clear. A photograph of the choir shows that it is approximately 45 strong which explains the warm and full tone - my sorrow is that they do not use that weight of numbers to give some of the climaxes more heft and simple power.
So a disc that promised much but ultimately fails to achieve more than technical excellence. All rather too polite and carefully modulated for my taste.
Nick Barnard Contents Robert PARSONS (1535-1571/2)
Ave Maria [5:40] Jonathan BATTISHILL (1738-1801)
O Lord, look down from heav'n [4:37] John BLOW (1648-1708)
Salvator Mundi [3:43] Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656
When David heard [5:14] Richard DERING (1580-1630)
Factum est silentium [3:18] Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
Gloria in excelsis Deo [3:38] William Byrd (1539/40-1623)
Agnus Dei (from the Mass for 4 voices) [3:30] Peter PHILLIPS (156-1628)
Ascendit Deus [2:36] Thomas MORLEY (1557/8-1602)
Nolo mortem peccatoris [3:23] Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Salvator mundi [3:35] John STAINER (1840-1901)
God so loved the World (from The Crucifixion) [3:57] Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Almighty and everlasting God [2:13] Adrian BATTEN (1591-1637)
O praise the Lord [1:23] William CROTCH (1775-1847)
How dear are thy counsels [3:07] Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)
Lord, let me know mine end [4:55] Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
My soul, there is a country (No.1 of Six Songs of Farewell) [3:47] Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
O for a closer walk with God [3:21] Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
O salutaris hostia [3:05] Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via [3:38]