Here are two sharply contrasted CDs within the same package from the Paris-based Accentus Chamber Choir. The first was made back in 2006 (available separately as V5048), and consists of choral transcriptions of music originally for other media. CD2 is devoted to music by Mendelssohn (available separately as V5265). So in CD1, the choir is centre-stage, while for CD2 it takes its place in the bigger picture.
In her interesting notes, Accentus’ brilliant conductor Laurence Equilbey explains that, rather than commissioning the transcriptions, the choir has been approached by various arrangers asking to write for them - an enviable situation. The exceptions are the versions of Schubert and Bach by Peter Cornelius, the 19th century German composer. The others are by contemporary musicians, including, for example, the distinguished choral conductor Clytus Gottwald.
The results are never less than fascinating, but, it has to be said, of variable success. The first number is Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; a little ‘culture shock’ here, as the opening sounds unexpectedly like Philip Glass in this version. That impression soon passes; but the elaborate solo violin figuration that crops up periodically did cause problems for me. The choir deals with it impressively, but it’s just not vocal writing, and inevitably sounds very strange. Equilbey does go for tempi on the quick side, and thus the middle movement sounds a little rushed, rather than the gentle moment of relaxation away from the wintry weather that Vivaldi had in mind.
In fact that tempo issue - brought about by singers’ need to breathe - crops up quite a few times, for example in the Wagner song Im treibhaus, which again lacks the breadth one would ideally seek. Balance can be a problem too; the Cornelius Bach arrangements are effective, but the melody of the Sarabande from the first French Suite, set to a text prepared by Cornelius himself - Busslied - simply disappears behind the dense lower parts. Odd this; the choir’s blend is good, but the men are rather colourless. Often I would like to hear their tone more distinctly, though I do understand that this rather ‘impersonal’ sound is intentional.
The Debussy and Ravel transcriptions are some of the most satisfying, particularly Gottwald’s version of Des pas sur la neige, which is memorable and moving. La flûte enchantée again fails to preserve the essence of the original Ravel. The flute melody, coolly melancholic in Ravel, is given to the very high soprano of Solange Añorga - wonderful singing in itself, but so bright and intense. On the other hand, La Belle au bois dormant and Le jardin féerique work quite beautifully. Perhaps it’s significant that I found one of the loveliest numbers to be Scriabin’s Feuillet d’album set as Si comme la lune, perhaps a case of the ‘innocent ear’, as I didn’t know the original.
So a mixed experience, though never less than interesting, and sometimes inspirational. The problems that do exist are not replicated on CD2, devoted as it is to more ‘conventional’ choral writing. The music here, though, is possibly not as well-known as it should be. Mendelssohn really knew about how to get the best out of choirs - he spent years conducting them - and the writing is masterly, if only rarely surprising. The short anthem Verleih uns Frieden (‘Give us peace in our time’) makes an excellent pipe-opener, followed by the first part of the unfinished oratorio Christus. The two segments we have here deal with the birth of Christ - a recit., a trio for the three kings, and a chorus incorporating ‘How Brightly Shines the Morning Star’ - and the later part called ‘Leiden Christi’ - ‘Christ’s suffering’.
Mendelssohn was working on this piece when he died so tragically and prematurely. Amongst his many achievements was the re-establishment of Bach’s Passions at the heart of European culture. In Christus, he emulates Bach’s approach, with expressive arioso and choruses of varying character. Particularly lovely is Daughters of Zion which will remind many listeners of Hear ye, Israel from Elijah. That is followed by the concluding chorale, Er nimmt auf seinen Rücken (‘He takes on his back the burdens that oppress me’), a melody that appears in both of Bach’s great Passions.
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden is often known as the ‘Passion Chorale’ because of its prominence in the St. Matthew - though it appears in the St. John as well - and Mendelssohn’s eponymous work begins with an extended chorus in ‘chorale prelude’ style, taking the chorale phrase by phrase. This work, and Von Himmel Hoch, based on another famous Lutheran Chorale, are much earlier works than Christus, being composed in Vienna when Mendelssohn was in his early 20s. The opening chorus of Von Himmel Hoch is a thrilling number, the choir entering joyously against cascading violins. These pieces are as satisfying to sing as they are to listen to, and I can’t help wondering why they are so rarely heard. Maybe it’s their length; both are less than a quarter of an hour in duration, which could make them tricky to programme - but not impossible.
The performances on this disc do full justice to the music; the choir is in superb voice, and the young-sounding soloists are ideal. I particularly loved the contributions of the tenor Robert Getchell, making his high-lying solos seem the easiest thing in the world. So my enjoyment of CD2 was more whole-hearted and consistent than that for CD1; yet as a set, the two discs complement each other superbly, and give a rounded picture of the achievements of this outstanding choir and conductor.
CD 1: Transcriptions 2
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741) arr.Franck Krawczyk
Winter from The Four Seasons
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr.Clytus Gottwald
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) arr. Krawczyk
The Field of Death from Alexander Nevsky
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) arr.Gottwald
Scheiden und Meiden
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) arr.Gottwald
arr.Peter Cornelius Grablied from Death and the Maiden Quartet
Arr. Gottwald Der Wegweiser from Winterreise
Arr.Krawczyk Nacht und Träume
Gustav Mahler arr. Gottwald
Die zwei blauen Augen from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) arr. Cornelius
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) arr. Gottwald
Des pas sur la neige
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) arr. Gérard Pesson
La flûte enchantée
both from Shéhérazade
Alexandre SCRIABIN (1872-1915) arr.Pesson
Si comme la lune
La lune parâit
Maurice RAVEL arr. Pesson
Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant
Le jardin féerique, both from Ma mère l’oye
Solange Añorga (soprano), Briggite Engere (piano) Les Monts du Reuil (continuo),
Accentus Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
rec. June 2006, Arsenal, Metz
CD 2: Mendelssohn
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Verleih uns Frieden
Christus I: Geburt Christi
Christus II: Leiden Christi
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
Von Himmel Hoch
Briggite Engere (piano); Les Monts du Reuil (continuo), Solange Añorga (soprano), Sandrine Piau (soprano), Markus Butter (baritone), Robert Getchell (tenor)
Accentus Chamber Choir, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/Laurence Equilbey
rec. June 2011, Notre Dame de Liban Church, Paris