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Saint Louis Firsts
Trevor JONES (b. 1949)
Psalm 23 [6:48]
Clare MACLEAN (b. 1958)
Slow Gold (2009) [6:03]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
Before The Ice (2012) [6:46]
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
Good Day, Sir Christėmas! (2013) [4:27]
Howard HELVEY (b. 1968)
An Evening Song (2008) [3:41]
Sasha Johnson MANNING (b. 1963)
Ode To Love [4:00]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Solomon And Love (2014) [14:40]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936–2012)
A Contemplation Upon Flowers (1999) [4:09]
Ugis PRAULIUS (b. 1957)
Iam Ver Egelidos (2014) [6:56]
Aquileia (2003) [6:16]
Sydney GUILLAUME (b. 1982)
Le Dernier Voyage (2012) [11:49]
Saint Louis Chamber Chorus/Philip Barnes
rec. 22-25 February 2015, Second Presbyterian Church, St Louis, Missouri
Texts and translations included
REGENT REGCD472 [75:37]

I’ve heard and admired several previous releases by this fine and enterprising American Choir (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). Apart from the excellence of their singing one factor which has attracted me to their recordings is their readiness to commission, perform and record rewarding pieces by contemporary composers. That aspect of their work is very much on show here. All but one of the pieces were written for the choir and, with the exception of those by Bob Chilcott and Richard Rodney Bennett, every item on this programme here receives its first recording. How appropriate that the image that appears on the cover is another ‘Saint Louis First’: Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in the city, built in 1890-91 and one of the first ‘skyscrapers’ in the world. Being in the vanguard seems to be something of a St Louis trait.

There are two substantial pieces on the programme. One is by Judith Bingham, with whose work I’m fairly familiar but the music of the Haitian composer, Sydney Guillaume is new to me, I think. In Le Dernier Voyage he sets a variety of texts including a poem by his father, Gabriel T Guillaume. The work was inspired by the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake of 2010 after which father and son relocated to different cities in the USA. It uses the metaphor of a maritime voyage to describe the human journey through life. The language used is the French-Haitian dialect. It seemed to me that the textures and harmonies had a distinctly French timbre and also that the music has a strong sense of forward momentum, though it ends calmly. I thought the music was very rich and I liked the piece very much.

Judith Bingham’s Solomon And Love is a cantata divided into four sections but playing without a break. The first section has the male voices telling – in arresting music - of King Solomon in his pomp. Then (3:03) the female voices take over, describing a woman seducing the king; here the music is suitably sensuous. There follows (5:12) a section in which all voices are involved; here Solomon yields to the temptations of the flesh with a variety of women and so turns away from God. This section contains very interesting, inventive writing. The final part of the piece (10:58) paints a wistfully melancholic picture of Solomon in old age, his powers failing. This is a fascinating piece which provides yet more evidence of how fine a choral composer Judith Bingham is.

Solomon And Love is, I suspect, her most recent composition for this choir but their association goes all the way back to 2003 and Aquileia. This piece is concerned with the relocation of the body of St Mark from Alexandria to Venice, as recalled by an old sailor. It’s another highly imaginative piece and another fine exploration of choral resources.

I was glad of another chance to hear Bob Chilcott’s winning Before The Ice in which he marries, to excellent effect, a poem by Emily Dickinson and the antiphon O magnum mysterium. Francis Pott’s Christmas piece was new to me but I enjoyed it; it’s festive and energetic. Two different approaches to Psalm 23 open the proceedings. The piece by Trevor Jones was not written for this choir; instead it was composed for a TV mini-series. For much of its duration it relies rather heavily on chordal chant-like writing. I think the music might have worked well with visual images to accompany it but whether it comes off as an independent concert piece I’m less sure. Clare Maclean combines words from the psalm with lines from Emily Dickinson and from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The result is a composition that’s much more varied – and, therefore, more successful, I think – than the Jones piece.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s offering is as expertly crafted as you’d expect from this composer and it’s most attractive. I was very taken also with Howard Helvey’s An Evening Song. This is a slow, lovely piece in which the music is suffused with golden twilight colours. Here and there some of the harmonic turns that the music takes reminded me of Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium.

The programme is a demanding one for the choir but as I’ve noticed on their previous discs they seem to rise to every challenge placed in their way. More than that, their singing is not only accomplished, it’s also full of conviction. Here is a choir that’s accustomed to performing contemporary music and is comfortable doing so. Engineer David Ruder has recorded them expertly. The sound is detailed yet also atmospheric; the overall effect is very pleasing.

There’s a good deal of rewarding listening here and in every way the music is presented expertly.

John Quinn



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