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Cantos Sagrados
National Youth Choir of Scotland
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Christopher Bell
rec. 2017/19, New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
Texts and translations supplied

A booklet photograph shows the National Youth Choir of Scotland to be close to a hundred strong. It doesn’t sound like that on this recording, such is the remarkable clarity of texture, line and diction. The singers’ ages range between 16 and 25, but no allowance need be made for any lack of vocal maturity. The programme was recorded in sessions two years apart, with the change of personnel inevitable in any group of young people. Yet each and every singer is listed in the booklet: bravo for that! Potential members will first enter a training choir as a preparation for the main choir itself, but the choir’s website encourages youngsters to request an audition even if their sight-reading is not yet up to scratch. This is all very positive, and contributes to performances that are technically superb, a satisfyingly full and rich sound, and outstanding unanimity of attack. For this, much credit must go to Christopher Bell.

James MacMillan took on the subject of Latin American state repression in his theatre piece Búsqueda, recorded in 1993 on the Catalyst label with Juliet Stevenson an unforgettable speaker. Cantos Sagrados broadens the approach by including short passages of liturgical text alongside three poems that deal directly with the work’s primary theme. It is a grim subject, hardly natural fodder for a youth choir. In the third movement, however, simple humanity emerges, when a soldier, binding the hands of a prisoner who is to be shot, asks for, and, so we imagine, is granted, forgiveness. MacMillan’s own 1994 recording, also on Catalyst, is of the original, organ accompanied version, and so not really comparable. Even so, I prefer the performance from the young Scottish singers: the music’s technical demands are splendidly mastered, but more importantly they attack the work with passion and hunger, making the close all the sweeter and more hopeful.

I wrote about Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine nine years ago when reviewing his Decca disc ‘Light and Gold’. The title tells us all we need to know about the subject matter. The first part of the work, appropriately enough, is a skilfully written near-pastiche of an Italian Renaissance madrigal. Then, as Leonardo’s dream reaches his climax and he launches himself into flight, the composer is in his element, finding sounds, both vocal and percussive, that perfectly illustrate such an extraordinary event. This is virtuoso choral writing that the young singers execute to thrilling effect.

I have long been resistant to this composer’s music, but hearing this work again in such a fine performance made me wonder if that was changing. But then I listened to When David Heard, a piece that was new to me. The composer’s writes that the text is comprised of ‘one single, devastating sentence … from the King James Bible’. This statement is simply wrong. None the less, Whitacre joins a select group of composers who have chosen to set these powerful words to music. A rising scale gives birth to a multi-voice cluster, an impressive gesture no doubt more strikingly new when the work was composed than it is today. Many repetitions of the words ‘my son, my son’ follow, with much use of silence, producing a halting effect. Whitacre’s habitually lush harmonies and frequent diatonic dissonance seem indulgent; they fail to convey, to this listener at least, anything of King David’s grief at the death of Absalom. Francis Pott set the same text in 2008. His setting is at once more complex and more restrained.

Thea Musgrave’s tiny piece is brilliant, and quirky with a serious side. The choir and its conductor are to be congratulated on the way they navigate their way through this challenging music. The multiple lines of ‘I saw a peacock with its fiery tail’ come out clearly, as do the words in the scary ‘The Subway Piranhas’. The texts come from verses destined to fall in passengers’ sightlines as they travelled on the metro. Nowadays they would have to appear on telephone screens.

Ēriks Ešenvalds was a student when he made public his admiration for Whitney Houston by his arrangement of the celebrated Amazing Grace. It is richly scored, with many a change of key, and includes a solo part that he ‘imagined one day might be performed by Whitney Houston’ herself. NYCoS’s Kirsty Hobkirk confronts this challenge with admirable cool and beauty of tone.

The glorious spirituals that Tippett adapted from A Child of Our Time are brisk. It’s not only a matter of tempo, though Bell takes less time in each of the five pieces than does Paul Spicer with the Finzi Singers on Chandos (1994). A fair amount of staccato is employed – the final note of ‘By and by’ – and clipped phrasing, especially in the two faster spirituals, makes for less affectionate performances than we usually hear. A repeated pause in the first spiritual sounds uncomfortable to me, as does the affected pronunciation of selected words, ‘Let ma people go’, for instance. This is a difficult question, though, and ‘I wanna cross over’ does not prevent ‘Deep River’ from being very moving, the finest performance of the five.

Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria is a delightful gift for any amateur choir that can support up to seven voices. Sung with great delicacy and richness of tone, it makes for a serene and satisfying close to a most enjoyable collection.

William Hedley
Disc contents
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Cantos Sagrados (1989/1997) [20:05]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970)
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine (2001) [7:25]
Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928)
On the Underground, Set 2: The Strange and the Exotic (1994) [4:16]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Amazing Grace (2004) [5:12]
When David Heard (1999) [11:19]
Michael TIPPETT (1905–1998)
Five Spirituals from A Child of Our Time (1943/1958) [10:56]
Franz BIEBEL (1906 -2001)
Ave Maria (1964) [4:51]

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