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Ton sur ton
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Kyrie (Messe pour double chœur) (1922-26) [5:10]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Magnificat (1976) [5:41]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b. 1943)
O Magnum Mysterium (1994) [6:48]
Rudolf MAUERSBERGER (1889-1971)
Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst (1945) [6:41]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Agnus Dei (1938) [7:21]
Maarten VAN INGELGEM (b. 1976)
Hampstead Heath (2014) [6:49]
Kurt BIKKEMBERGS (b. 1963)
Never pain to tell thy love (2004) [2:23]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Take Him, Earth for Cherishing (1964) [8:52]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Un soir de neige (1944) [6:20]
Vlaams Radiokoor/Bart van Reyn
rec. 2019, Jezuïetenkerk, Heverlee, Leuven, Belgium
Tests and translations included

I’ve previously heard a number of Evil Penguin releases of recordings by the Vlaams Radiokoor and in each case I’ve been seriously impressed by the quality of the singing. Those earlier releases were all conducted by Hervé Niquet (review ~ review ~ review). On this occasion, though, the choir is singing under Bart van Reyn, who has been their music director since the start of the 2019-20 season. I surmise, therefore, that this is their first disc together.

In the booklet we read that this mixed programme “is like an exhibition in which singers emerge from silence, painting with music, note upon note, colour upon colour, tone upon tone.” The chosen repertoire consists of expressive music, largely in a slow or moderate tempo. However, whilst that might suggest a lack of variety, that’s not the case: there’s plenty of differentiation.

Much of the music is pretty familiar. The Kyrie from Frank Martin’s magnificent Messe pour double chœur serves notice that we’re to experience top quality singing. The choir’s sound is beautifully integrated and there’s great clarity in the part-writing. Later, when the music speeds up, the singing has thrilling urgency. This performance makes me wish the Vlaams Radiokoor had recorded the complete Mass. A choir needs perfect discipline and accuracy of ensemble and intonation to be able to bring off a piece like Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat. The Vlaams Radiokoor possess those attributes in spades.

There are two American pieces, both of them very familiar. Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium has achieved near-classic status and it’s much recorded. You’ll go a long way, though, to find a recording as good as this present one. The performance is flawless and expressive with the long phrases wonderfully sustained. I’ve never been quite convinced that Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his celebrated Adagio for Strings works as a vocal piece. In particular, that’s because the soprano line lies stratospherically high at times. When you have sopranos of this calibre, however, there’s no sense of strain. I like the fact, too, that Bart van Reyn is perceptive in his choice of tempo: the music flows but the pacing retains the necessary solemnity.

Howells’ Take Him, Earth for Cherishing has a strong American link, of course; it was written to commemorate President John F Kennedy. It’s a wonderfully eloquent work and here the performers achieve impressive clarity in the individual lines while their sound comes together in a sonorous whole that is most satisfying. From the other side of the English Channel comes Francis Poulenc’s Un soir de neige. This mini-cycle sets four poems by Paul Élouard in music that evokes the chill of winter, albeit some of the cold is mitigated by the warmth of Poulenc’s harmonies. In this performance the harmonies are expertly realised.

The other pieces on the programme are less familiar. Rudolf Mauersberger became music director of the Dresdner Kreuzchor in 1930 and remained in the post until his death in 1971. Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst was composed as a direct response to the devastating bombing of Dresden in February 1945 and the piece was first performed in the ruins of the Kreuzkirche in August of that year. Selecting verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Mauersberger produced a piece that is deeply felt yet dignified. The musical idiom is conservative, though none the worse for that. The text is highly appropriate to the dreadful circumstances and the musical response to the words is impressive.

I think I’m right in saying that both Maarten van Ingelgem and Kurt Bikkembergs are Flemish composers – the frankly minimalist notes are no help in this respect. Van Ingelgem’s work sets five lines of text from a larger literary work, ‘Unfinished landscape’ by the Belgian author, Annelies Verbeke (b 1976). Her work was written for the commemoration of World War I, we are told. Without knowing the greater context, I can’t really judge the import of the words. The music is slow moving and the harmonies interesting. According to the booklet, “while remaining rooted in tradition Kurt Bikkembergs seeks to bring innovation into (mainly religious – vocal) music”. His Never pain to tell thy love is a setting of words by William Blake. I’m not in a position to say how typical of the composer’s output it is, but it sounds to me to be very respectful of tradition – in a good way - while not pushing the boundaries greatly. I liked the piece and, indeed, van Ingelgem’s offering as well.

The singing on this disc is absolutely exemplary in every respect. I enjoyed both the music and the performances very much though, noting the rather short playing time, I wish one or two more items had been included. The choir has been most sympathetically recorded in the same venue that hosted the sessions for their very fine recording of Alfred Desenclos’s Requiem (review). The documentation could have been better in terms of information about the pieces performed. On the other hand, the texts and translations are nicely laid out and there are good photographs of the choir in action.

The Vlaams Radiokoor is a superb ensemble and I look forward to hearing more from them on disc.

John Quinn

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