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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
In the Beginning (1947) [16:30]
Five Old American Songs (1950/2):
Simple Gifts (arr. Irving Fine) [1:32]
The Boatman's Song (arr. Irving Fine) [3:00]
At the River (arr. Raymond Wilding-White) [3:03]
Zion's Walls (arr. Glenn Koponen) [2:04]
Ching-a-ring-chaw (arr. Irving Fine) [1:45]
Four Motets (1921) [9:53]
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Hymns from the Old South (1937/49)
My Shepherd will supply my need [3:51]
The Morning Star [1:14]
Green Fields [2:39]
Death, 'tis a melancholy day [2:35]
Mass for two-part chorus and percussion (1934) [9:43]
Tribulationes Civitatium (1922) [2:38]
De Profundis (1920) [2:45]
When I survey the Bright Celestial Sphere (1964) (arr. Scott Wheeler) [4:52]
Gloriae Dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
Luretta Bybee (mezzo-soprano), David Chalmers, James E. Jordan (pianos), David Ortolani (percussion)
Gloriae Dei Brass
rec. Mechanic Hall, Worcester Mass., USA September 2000
GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GDCD029 [68:12]

Appalachian Sketches
Gloriae Dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
Mark O'Connor (violin), Timothy KcKendree (violin), William Riley (guitar), Sr. Mary Magdalene Buddington (harp), Sr. Helen Spatzeck-Olsen (mezzo-soprano), Br. Richard Cragg (tenor)
rec. Mechanic Hall, Worcester Mass., USA February 2001
GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GDCD031 [60:47]

Here we have two previous releases by the choir Gloriae Dei Cantores, a forty-strong choir based on Cape Cod. Elizabeth Patterson founded the choir in 1988 and - as their website says - "transformed it from a small church choir to a world-class concert choir".

The first disc focuses on the choral music of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The former stays resolutely popular through a handful of orchestral works and the latter remains stubbornly unfamiliar. Writing after Thomson's death Bernstein said; "We all loved his music, and rarely performed it." In the catalogue none of the works offered here are exactly over-recorded and this combination is certainly unique. The main Copland works appear together on a Hyperion disc from Matthew Best and his excellent Corydon singers couple with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and the Barber Adagio/Agnus Dei. For those who admire Copland's music In the Beginning is mandatory listening. This is a big unaccompanied choral work running to over sixteen taxing minutes. Copland wrote it in 1947 - the decade that contains pretty much all of the music for which he remains best-known today; Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, Fanfare for the Common Man, Symphony No.3. So this was a composer in the middle of a creative flood. But do not expect this verbatim setting of the book of Genesis to be Copland in easy-listening populist mode. In many ways the compositional technique looks forward to his later knottier works. The performance here by Gloriae Dei Cantores is very good indeed, as indeed is the substantial contribution by mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee. Conductor Elizabeth Patterson finds a greater fluency and expressiveness than Best and as a consequence Copland's often angular vocal lines sound more lyrical. This is by no means an easy listen but it is a rewarding one.

Just sneaking into the next decade was another popular work by Copland; his two sets of Old American Songs - originally for baritone and piano. So popular that choral versions were requested - a task Copland assigned to others including fellow composer Irving Fine. A selection of five songs from the two sets are performed here. I have a distinct preference for the solo voice originals whether in their piano or orchestral garb but they are very well performed here - give credit to Fine and the other arrangers for making the music work so well in this new form. Copland's half of the disc concludes with the Four Motets he wrote as part of his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1921. This was as part of Boulanger's requirement for students to write exercises in contrapuntal and formal discipline. Copland subsequently dismissed these - far too harshly - as merely exercises and was reluctant to allow them to be published in 1979. History proves the composer wrong. These contain musical inspiration way beyond that of technical exercise. For sure it would be hard for the innocent ear to spot the composer but that does not diminish their quality. Fine expressive performances again.

The group of Virgil Thomson works opens with the four Hymns from the Old South. These were all published separately over the period of about twelve years but they work well as a set. Thomson arranging is respectful of the simple hymn origins and the writing for the vocal lines is simple but effective. Thomson does not seek to make significant differences between verses, rather letting the music blossom as it progresses. The Mass for Two-part Chorus and percussion that follows is an unusual piece. The percussion writing - for just a single player - is very sparse and not at all overtly virtuosic and the use of just a pair of upper voice parts gives an archaic quality to some of the vocal writing. Indeed, I wondered if the function of the percussion writing was to underline some sense of ancient ritual rather than create any sense of spectacle. This is a compact setting of the Liturgy - the Sanctus and Benedictus combined only just run over a minute long. The two Latin settings are relatively early works written when Thomson was in his mid-twenties. Given that both composers were Boulanger pupils and these works are from much the same time as the Copland Motets I wonder if they served a similar function - the liner does not elaborate on their origin.

The disc is completed with a hymn-like setting of When I survey the Bright Celestial Sphere. This is in a version for brass and choir made in 1981 by Scott Wheeler after the composer's death as opposed to the original which had an organ accompaniment. Wheeler studied composition with Thomson. The writing is unison choir with the brass filling in the counterpoint around it. The performance is again very good but I have to say this was probably the least impressive work on the disc - the idea of concluding it with massed voices and brass would appear obvious but unfortunately the work itself is Thomson at his least inspired.

The second disc has the title Appalachian Sketches and is in the main arrangements for unaccompanied choir of folk hymns from the Appalachian Mountains. David Chalmers very good English-only liner explains the origins and heritage of much of this music which is in essence simple and direct. To be honest this is not a disc that benefits from being listened to in a single sitting. There is a certain sameness to the bulk of the hymns which if they do not resonate with one's own experience makes for a rather dull experience. In part this is also due to the rather plain nature of the arrangements. To my ear they take an original earthily direct style of music making and smooth those "rough" edges making the result rather polite. The inner voices of the harmonies seem to be more in line with academic correctness - I miss hearing the parallel moving fifths and fourths that give so much character. The origins of many of these hymns were in a style known as 'shape notes'. I am no expert on the folk origins of this music but I remember the enormous impact this music - in a more authentic performing style - made as part of the soundtrack to the film Cold Mountain. There the Sacred Heart Singers at Liberty Church sang with a fervour and zeal which is quite out the remit and chosen style of Gloriae Dei Cantores.

I was quite surprised to read that the choir was as big as forty voices. As recorded here it sounds smaller. Generally the singing is good without being exceptionally good. Certainly not in the league of other American choirs such as the astonishing Kansas City Chorale. Tuning and ensemble here is generally good without challenging the superhuman precision of that choir. Curiously, I think the music would benefit from a more ragged but impassioned approach. Standing head and shoulders above the rest of the programme as a piece and as an arrangement and for sheer interest is Mark O'Connor's treatment of Let Us Move. This is a very unusual piece indeed - I cannot think of another - written as it is for choir and solo obligato violin. O'Connor is a remarkable violinist/composer - if you have not heard his more usual concertante music for violin I urge you to seek it out. He writes in a very individual style blurring the boundaries between jazz, bluegrass, folk and classical forms. At the same time he is a stunningly virtuosic exponent of his own music. In the liner he explains how he wrote the work. He initially turned down the commission because he had not written for choir before. He had a melody line in his head and while searching for a text to fit it was lend a book of old hymns and in a moment of revelation found the text; "Hail the day that sees him rise, Al-le-lu-u-u-ia-a!" which fitted the pre-existing melody in every respect. For someone with no experience of choral writing O'Connor is remarkably successful. I like the way he tosses fragments of the melody across the choir - giving the music a real sense of shout and response - almost latterday hocketing. This is a long piece too - running to over fifteen minutes more than double the length of the next longest work on the disc [Lorena] which in turn is more than double the third longest work. But O'Connor paces the work brilliantly as well as reserving key musical effects for special moments. The solo violin does not enter for more than two minutes and then has a Bachian minute and a half to itself. The choir alone then returns - the sopranos are severely taxed by the high-lying writing around the 6:00 mark - and it is not until right on the 7:00 mark that finally violin and voices join. Up until this point the basic pulse of the music has been quite steady. Quite coincidentally O'Connor makes much of a descending phrase that is very similar to Arvo Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. But as the choir evermore obsessively intone Alleluia the violin starts to jitter into a more rhythmic accompaniment. In turn the choir writing becomes more jagged and energetic - I would like more attack and energy here! Certainly the build to the final cry of Alleluia could benefit from greater unbuttoned fervour.

Two other pieces are performed with accompaniments; Jesus, Jesus rest your head and the aforementioned Lorena. Both of these are highly effective - the simplicity of the harp accompaniment to the former is most affecting. In the latter, a pre-Civil War folk ballad, a guitar and violin play this lovely tune in an arrangement which one imagines recreates the style of accompaniment of the original song. Lorena also features an impassioned solo by tenor Richard Cragg. Of the fifteen unaccompanied numbers eight are from Eight American Mountain Hymns arranged by Alice Parker. Of course it is a useful reference to be able to hear the whole set but I do not think Parker conceived them as a cycle in performing terms - simply a collection of eight songs from a similar source.

The recording in the Mechanics Hall Worcester Massachusetts is good - the balance between the choir and the instrumentalists is very good. For my own taste I find the choir is recorded a fraction too close so that individual voices rather than a collective group are discernible. Certainly in comparing the two discs the balance of the second disc seems noticeably closer. The liner notes to both discs are extensive and in English only - all texts are given. As a pair of discs these prove to be a good and effective coupling. Musically, the Copland/Thomson disc is - for me - substantially more rewarding although the O'Connor setting is as enjoyable as it is impressive. Good engineering and idiomatic sympathetic singing ensure these are valuable introductions into the rich tradition of American Choral music.

Nick Barnard


Contents
Appalachian Sketches

Hark, I hear the Harps eternal (Trad.) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
His Voice as the Sound (Trad.) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925) & Robert SHAW (1916-1999)
Bright Canaan (Trad.) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925) & Robert SHAW (1916-1999)
O Thou, in whose presence Joseph SWAIN (1761-1796) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
New Concord Charles WESLEY (1707-1788) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Let us Move Charles WESLEY (1707-1788) arr. Mark O'CONNOR (b.1961)
Begin my soul (Trad.) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925) & Robert SHAW (1916-1999)
Tender Thought (Psalm 23) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Social Band arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Jesus Jesus Rest your head ((Trad.) arr. John Jacob NILES (1892-1980)
Resignation (Psalm 23) Isaac WATTS (1674-1748) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
I will arise Robert ROBINSON (1735-1790) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Lorena Joseph Philbrick WEBSTER (1819-1875) arr. Michael HALE
Holy Manna arr. John CARTER (b.1930)
Angel Band Re. J. Haskell (1807-1887) arr. Michael HALE
Death shall not destroy (Trad.) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925) & Robert SHAW (1916-1999)
Vernon Charles WESLEY (1707-1788) arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)
Foundation arr. Alice PARKER (b.1925)

 

 




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