The Mindful Melophile

    All Singing! Some Talking! A Little Dancing!

    Issue 156

    This month’s focus is on choral music: pieces for accompanied and unaccompanied ensembles, music sung by large and small groups, vocal arrangements of instrumental music, standard choral repertoire, and music ranging from the offbeat to the sublime. Many of the selections are serene, soulful, and peaceful…selections everyone can appreciate during these extraordinarily difficult times.

    Ernst Toch/Valse/Northern Michigan University Choir (video)

    “Valse” (Waltz) is one of the pieces from the composer’s 1930 suite Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music), a style invented by Toch. This is the same suite that includes his most performed choral work, the “Geographical Fugue,” where singers say the names of various cities, countries, and other geographical landmarks while following strict fugal form. (For more about Toch’s fugue read “I Bought It for the A-Side” in Issue 141.)

    “Valse” is as much fun to perform as it is to hear. There isn’t a satisfactory recording of the piece (in English) on YouTube but you can watch a likable performance by the Northern Michigan University Choir – entertaining, even though the waltz loses some of its energy and starts to just mosey along midway through. If you trip the light fantastic with the Choir you might want to join them at the end and rave: “What a dance!”

    “Valse”:

     

    Samuel Barber/Samuel Barber: An American Romantic/Conspirare choir (Harmonia Mundi SACD)

    Barber’s Agnus Dei for chorus is usually more familiar to listeners as the Adagio for Strings – the composer’s 1936 composition for string orchestra derived from the second movement of his string quartet Op.11. The Agnus Dei arrangement for mixed voices has become standard fare and often appears on concert programs with or without the optional organ or piano accompaniment.

    In his comments about this album for AllMusic, Graham Olson points out that the Adagio for Strings has associations with mourning, nostalgia, love, and passion while the Agnus Dei adds another element to the composition:

    “In recasting the Adagio for mixed choir in 1967, Barber brought to the surface the work’s sense of spirituality. In contrast to the sentimental Romanticism of the original, the use of voices provides a reverent Renaissance quality reminiscent of the music of Palestrina or Gabrieli. The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) from the Catholic mass, a humble request for forgiveness and peace, provides the text. Barber’s setting is immaculate; the intense climax conveys the most urgent portion of the text, “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us), while the blissfully contented conclusion begs, “dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace). The notes themselves are essentially unchanged from the Adagio, aside from a few necessary voicing adjustments to accommodate the sopranos. From a performance standpoint, the Agnus Dei is one of the more difficult works in the choral repertoire, requiring immense lung capacity, ability to sustain long lines, and an extensive dynamic range.” [1]

    The recording and performances, as usual for the Harmonia Mundi label, are excellent.

    Agnus Dei:

     

    Morten Lauridsen/Lux aeterna/Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton, cond. (Harmonia Mundi SACD)

    Lux aeterna (1997), one of Lauridsen’s most popular compositions, is instilled with warmth and consolation. According to Lauridsen it’s an “intimate work of quiet serenity [that expresses] hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations.”

    My preferred track on the disc is the shorter and slightly earlier O Magnum Mysterium (1994). Like Lux aeterna it’s a lyrical, glowing, refined, and engaging work, “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” Wherever you are – sitting in your favorite listening chair or working from home (or both) – sit back and let the music gently wash over you. 

    O Magnum Mysterium:

     

    Leonard Bernstein/Bernstein Conducts Bernstein/New York Philharmonic with the   Camerata Singers/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Sony reissue CD)

    The opening text of Chichester Psalms (1965) translates to “Make a joyful noise” and that’s precisely what the orchestra and chorus do in the first movement. The slower second movement features a boy soloist singing with harp accompaniment: The result is peaceful and bluesy. When the second movement finishes, keep the player cranked up: There’s a leisurely, hushed chorale toward the end of the third movement that gives thanks for calmness and unity. The sound quality of the Psalms (its playmate is the composer’s Symphony No. 3) is a bit hard but these are classic performances with Bernstein at his best.

    The entire Psalms can be found, complete with texts in Hebrew and English, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8gKSqVAXrg, but you might encounter drop outs. If you do, individual movements are located below:

    Chichester Psalms:

    First movement

     

    Second movement

     

    Third movement

     

    Gabriel Fauré: Requiem & Maurice Duruflé: Requiem/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw, cond. (Telarc CD)

    A terrific disc that’s been one of my “go to” recordings for many years. Both Requiems are understated, especially enjoyable when programmed together, well played, and well recorded with great depth and warmth. 

    Fauré’s Requiem, scored for a choir of about 40 singers and a small orchestra, was composed in 1888. Fauré revised the score in 1893 by adding material and parts for a few brass and wind instruments. In 1901 he issued yet another version, this time for full symphony orchestra. [2]

    “Fauré’s Requiem is noted for its calm, serene and peaceful outlook. Anyone looking for morose themes is searching in the wrong place. Instead, here we find musical solace in a work that focuses not on the morbid, but on the supposedly restful and fear-free nature of death.

    Of all seven sections, the Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei and In Paradisum emerge as the most glorious, filled with rich, soulful melodies. The work garnered the praise of many other composers – not least Camille Saint-Saëns, who thought it divine. It was performed at Fauré’s own funeral in 1924.” [3]

    “Introit et Kyrie”  (Fauré Requiem):

     

    Verdi/Messa da Requiem/Orchestra e Coro Dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano, cond. (EMI CD)

    This is the place where melodrama can be found. There are many recordings of Verdi’s Requiem (1874) but Pappano’s, with an all-star lineup of soloists, is especially striking. From the unusually hushed and mysterious-sounding chorus at the beginning through the rest of the Requiem’s fire and brimstone demeanor, Pappano’s high-energy approach is arresting. Great sound, too: sharp, clear, spacious, and well-defined.

    After listening to the “Dies irae” selection, stay tuned for the calming Requiem aeternum with its short falling melodic phrase that sounds remarkably similar to the one used by Dvořák in his Stabat Mater.

    “Dies irae”:

     

    Mexican Baroque: Music from New Spain/Chanticleer with the Chanticleer Sinfonia (Das Alte Werk/Teldec CD)

    A program of attractive Baroque music from an unexpected source, performed by the acclaimed Chanticleer vocal ensemble. [4] Ignacio de Jerusalem (1707 – 1769), born in Italy, was a prolific composer who moved to Mexico in 1743 but didn’t write music that reflected the native folk songs and instruments of Mexico. Rick Anderson, in his album review, explained:

    “In 17th and 18th century New England, transplanted Englishmen like Daniel Read, Abraham Wood, and especially William Billings were composing beautiful but rough-hewn and distinctly American vocal music for use in what were called ‘singing schools.’ Far to the west and south, in what was then called New Spain and would later be called Mexico, natives and transplanted Spaniards were composing liturgical music of a richness and complexity that was worthy of the greatest cathedrals of Europe – and teaching their native converts to do the same. This disc showcases the works of two of 18th century Mexico’s finest composers: the Mexican-born Manuel de Zumaya and the transplanted European Ignacio de Jerusalem…The latter is represented by a polychoral Mass in D Minor, a responsory [Responsorio Segundo de S.S. José], and a gorgeous Dixit Dominus setting written in six sections…Accompanied by an ad hoc period instrument ensemble dubbed the Chanticleer Sinfonia for this album, Chanticleer does its usual job of effortlessly and thrillingly bringing this music to vivid life, and the recorded sound could hardly be brighter and richer. This is one of Chanticleer’s finest and most satisfying albums.” [5]

    Exactly!

    Responsorio Segundo de S.S. José:

     

    Testament/The Turtle Creek Chorale and Dallas Wind Symphony/Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director (Reference Recordings CD)

    The Turtle Creek Chorale does it again! Testament includes pieces by several 20th century composers including Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein that have been arranged for male chorus and woodwinds. The results are wonderful, especially the song “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, Bernstein’s operetta based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name. Although Candide wasn’t received well when it opened, [6] the music was an immediate hit – e.g., the overture has become an orchestral standard and one of the most frequently-performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer.

    This is a show-stopping arrangement I enjoy no matter how many times I play it.

    “Make Our Garden Grow”:

     

    Lux Aeterna/The Gents/Peter Dijkstra, cond. (Channel SACD)

    Two discs featuring another all-male vocal ensemble like Chanticleer and the Turtle Creek Chorale that produces “a highly polished, rich and smooth sound, with impeccable intonation” (International Record Review). I play this recording primarily for the pieces by Poulenc. If you aren’t familiar with Poulenc, start with “Salut, Dame Sainte,” the first prayer of Quatre Petites prières de Saint Françios d’Assise (1949): It’s only a few minutes long but displays several elements of Poulenc’s harmonic color and style.

    “Salut, Dame Sainte”:

     

    John Rutter/Requiem/The City of London Sinfonia and Cambridge Singers/John Rutter, cond. (Collegium CD) 

    John Rutter’s much-loved and much recorded Requiem (1985) is a favorite with choirs and one of my favorites, too. Rutter was influenced by Fauré’s Requiem and wanted to write his own Requiem that was “intimate rather than grandiose, contemplative and lyric rather than dramatic, and ultimately moving towards light rather than darkness…” This recording is especially interesting because it’s conducted by Rutter, resulting in a performance that is as close to the composer’s intentions as possible.

    Requiem (Collegium):

     

    Shaman/Toby Twining Music (Catalyst CD)

    And now for something completely different. Toby Twining is a composer who uses unusual vocal sounds to form a unique musical palette. (See “Whatever Happened to Honk, Bonk, Boing and Blomp?” in Issue 126 where I discuss extended vocal techniques.) Shaman incorporates vocal traditions from around the world including American jazz, African yodeling, and Mongolian overtone singing, as well as language like “googly-goo” in a musical context – a blend that helps redefine singing.

    The program is refreshing and Twining’s a cappella ensemble handles the sounds and harmonies effortlessly. “Hotel Destiné” in particular is accessible, jazzy, and lively…an enjoyable contrast to some of the other music in this month’s column.

    “Hotel Destiné”:

     

    [1] Graham Olson, AllMusic, 2012.

    [2] The third version was popular for much of the 20th century. However, in the 1970s and 1980s several Fauré scholars along with the English composer/conductor John Rutter worked to reconstruct Fauré’s original 1893 orchestration. Many consider that version to be closest to Fauré’s original intent, although Fauré himself never renounced the larger version for full orchestra, stating that it was appropriate for certain “concert” situations. (LA Phil “At-A-Glance” program notes.)

    [3] Classic fm, “Music,” 2022.

    [4] Chanticleer was named in honor of the “clear-singing” rooster in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

    [5] Rick Anderson, “Overview,” AllMusic, 1994.

    [6] There were many revisions after the disappointing opening in 1956. The “final revised version,” conducted by Bernstein, was recorded by DGG in 1989.

    Header image: The Turtle Creek Chorale. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/TriPTruong.

    One comment on “All Singing! Some Talking! A Little Dancing!”

    1. Being a long-time choral music fan, I was already familiar with a few of these suggested works and I wholeheartedly agree with your having chosen them (Turtle Creek’s “Testament” disc, for example). Others I know, but from different performances (Laurence Equilby and the Accentus Chamber Choir, for example, is the only version I’ve heard of Barber’s Agnus Dei*, as is Turtle Creek’s recording of the Rutter Requiem). Thanks for laying the ground work for some wonderful time to be spent in exploration.

      *Notwithstanding, of course, the Adagio, in both quartet and orchestrated versions.

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