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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Hit and Miss Choral Outing

Karl JENKINS (b. 1944)
Sing we merrily unto God [4:26]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Greater love hath no man [5:20]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Cantique de Jean Racine [4:45]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via [3:21]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce Héroique [8:15]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen [5:37]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
I Was Glad [5:19]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Solus ad victimam [4:13]
Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Variations sur un theme de Clément Janequin [5:20]
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)
Blessed be the God and Father [6:54]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land [4:13]
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Te Deum [8:00]

The Choir of Eltham College
OSJ Brass
Tim Johnson and Tim Garrard, directors
Henry Fairs, organ
Julian Issa, Matthew Morgan, Anna Simmons, Robbie Jacobs, Lewis Owen and Tim Garrard, soloists.

Recorded at Bromley Parish Church, 17-19 September 2006.

HEARLD HAVPCD 323 [67:07]

The Eltham College Choirs have put together yet another greatest hits sampler from the Anglican Cathedral repertoire and have achieved a mixed success. On the whole, the choir sings with a warm blended tone and with even balance between the sections. But, being a non professional university ensemble, in some repertoire the group’s weaknesses jump out at you.

Karl Jenkins, famous for his “Diamond Music” and “Adiemus” recordings has composed a festive opening motet, written to celebrate the opening of the college’s new music school in 2005. It is obviously an occasional work, and serves the purpose well. We continue with a long set of evergreens that is at times quite lovely and at others rather trying to hear.

Ireland’s Greater Love receives a well paced and finessed performance here with nice solo work by Julian Issa and Matthew Morgan. We hit some trouble in the Fauré Cantique, where the men’s tone is way too strident for the lovely unison passages at the beginning. When we get to the louder four part writing, the tenors stick out with their overheated and white tone color. Stanford’s famous motet Beati quorum via gets a lovely and elegant performance, but for the life of me, I don’t know why choirs of all young singers try to tackle the Brahms Requiem. Wie lieblich is under winded and there is an obvious lack of physical maturity in the sound that serves to only make the listener wonder why this piece was chosen. Parry’s omnipresent I Was Glad is also in need of a more mature sound, especially from the men.

Henry Fairs is an imaginative organist and contributes two fine solos to break up the pine forest. Of particular merit are the Alain Janequin Variations that receive a colorfully registered and rhythmically driving performance.

Kenneth Leighton’s music can be rather stark at times, and the harmonic darkness of Solus ad victimam is brought forth beautifully in this rendition. It is a motet that leaves the listener feeling like he’s just been struck with a hammer and the choir brings out the anguish and pain in the text to a remarkable degree. S. S. Wesley’s Brahms influenced motet Blessed be the God and Father has some touchingly tender moments, but it does tend to run on a bit. In this work I found the choir’s singing to be a bit over bright and too far forward in the mouth. A little more depth and richness, particularly from the men would have been welcome.

The tenderest performance of the whole recital comes in the beautiful hymn setting Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land. The trebles capture a lovely innocence that is touching indeed. The program is rounded out with a successful performance of John Rutter’s well crafted Te Deum.

To sum it up, this is a mixed bag of hits and misses that seems more suited to the souvenir market than international release. Given that there are literally hundreds of superb professional recordings of these standards, I often wonder why university choirs, who have the luxury of vast amounts of regular rehearsal time, do not record more challenging and obscure works. Face it, a disc like this cannot stand against ones by the Cambridge Singers or the Sixteen Choir. Wouldn’t the listeners be better served by an exciting first recording of some fantastic work that might rarely be performed outside of academia? I at least think so.

Some Interesting Swedish Songs

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942)

Time of Waiting a selection of songs to texts by Erik Axel Karfeldt. Helge Brilioth, tenor; Erland Hagegård, baritone; Sven Alin and Jan Eyron, pianists. Sterling CDA 1661-2. 77:27

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Erik Axel Karfeldt were acquainted for a number of years and from time to time were Stockholm neighbors. But it was during the first decade of the twentieth century, when both composers were bachelors and had the luxury of time to meet in the cafes and restaurants that their friendship and collaboration was the most intense. In all Peterson-Berger set thirty five of Karfeldt’s poems, most for solo voice and piano, and others male chorus. This disc presents all twenty-five of the settings for solo voice, splendidly performed here by tenor Helge Brilioth and baritone Erland Hagegård, and quite ably accompanied by pianists Sven Alin and Eyron.

The texts are sweeping and romantic and the music is made to order, at times stormy, at others lush and somewhat melancholy, and again at others dancing and almost frivolous. Karfeldt’s poetry ranges in topic from hymns to the moon, to death, to love won and lost, and Peterson-Berger finds the seemingly perfect musical mood and nuance to express the somewhat flowery language of the poet.

Both Brilioth and Hagegård sing with a refined warmth and subtlety. I never once noticed any over-singing or excessive vibrato. Both singers have a fine even timber and a great palette of vocal color in all parts of their ranges and at all dynamic levels. They are accompanied to perfection by Mssrs. Alin and Eyron.

These are songs that are worthy of any recital program, and it seems to me that the only reason that we hear them so seldom outside of Scandinavia is that many American and western European singers might have difficulty with the Swedish language, beautiful and mellifluous as it is.

Sterling have given us a very present and warm recording, never overwrought and in very clear focus and detail. Program notes are abundant and informative and texts in both Swedish and English are provided. For any lover of song this is a highly recommendable recital. You’ll want to follow the texts for the first couple of listening though in order to get a handle on the poetry and its meaning.

Kevin Sutton

Two Fine Symphonies Worth Your Exploration

Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1911) [34:38]

Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 (Song of the Night) (1916) [26:10]

Ryszard Minkiewicz, (tenor)

Ewa Marczyk (solo violin)

Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Antoni Wit

Recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 16-19 April 2007

NAXOS 8.570721 [60:48]

Karol Szymanowsky was born in modern day Ukraine. A childhood leg injury prevented him from attending school as a child and he received his education, both musical and otherwise, at home. He and his four siblings would go on to be prominent musicians, poets and artists. As a young man he studied in Warsaw and in Berlin. It was in Warsaw that his Polish identity (his father was Polish and his mother was of Swedish extraction) would come to the fore. He would go on to become a prominent member of Young Poland in Music, a group dedicated to the creation and promotion of modern Polish music.

The Second Symphony is cast in three sections. The first movement is lengthy and rhapsodic. Opening with a yearning violin solo ably played by Ewa Marczyk, this is music that is packed with contrasts; at times lush and romantic, at others packed with stinging dissonance. Harmonically it is reminiscent of Mahler, but with a more compact and to the point formal structure. The second movement is a clever theme and variations and the final movement is a complex fugue. The Warsaw Philharmonic acquits itself well in this music with some outstanding playing from the horn section. Antoni Wit leads a well paced performance, coaxing a warm and rich tone from his string section.

The Third Symphony again relies on a sophisticated violin solo, but Szymanowski also adds a full chorus and a tenor soloist to set a thirteenth century song in praise of the night. The large orchestral forces and the wall of sound coming from the chorus remind us a bit of Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder. Szymanowski ventures further afield harmonically in this work than in the earlier symphony, with more reliance on biting dissonances. The weak link here is tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz, whose voice possesses all the necessary heft in the loud passages, but lacks in subtlety when he is required to sing softly. There are moments when we are left wondering if he will be able to sustain the high soft notes without cracking. The Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus is a fine ensemble, with a warm blended tone that does not short out in the loudest passages.

Of the two symphonies, I found the earlier work to be the most satisfying. As often seems to happen when voices are added to compositions called “symphonies,” the structural integrity of the music tends to weaken and we are left with a somewhat rambling soundscape. This seems to happen in the latter work. Nonetheless, this is a recommendable recording, especially for the virtuosity of the Warsaw Philharmonic as displayed in the Symphony No. 2.