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CD Review

December Stillness

  • Herbert Howells: Long, long ago
  • Krzysztof Penderecki: Izhe xeruvimy (Song of Cherubim)
  • Alf A. Houkom: The Rune of Hospitality
  • Trond Kverno: Corpus Christi Carol
  • Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff: Khvalitye imya Gospodnye (Praise the Name of the Lord)
  • Marjorie Hess: The Oxen
  • Igor Stravinsky: Ave Maria
  • Francis Poulenc: Quem vidistis pastores dicite
  • Stephen Paulus: Evensong
  • Steven Heitzeg: little tree
The Dale Warland Singers/Dale Warland
American Choral Catalogue ACC121
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I've praised before now Dale Warland's Cathedral Classics CD (ACC120), to me an outstanding choral performance of the previous year. The fact that it received no Grammy nomination says everything I need to know about classical Grammies. Warland follows up this CD with December Stillness – music which gives you the "silence in the snowy fields." Again, the program explores major choral repertoire, although Warland leavens it with lighter work. "Lighter," however, is a relative term. We're not talking "Frosty the Snowman" here.

Warland has shaped a world-class group. Technically, this choir executes all the basics of choral singing no less than superbly: intonation, diction, rhythm, line, and so on. Lucky Minnesota, to have this group. Lucky us, that Warland records. I realize that, for many, one choir sounds as good as another. I want this review to point out what moves the Warland Singers far beyond all but a very few.

Paradoxically, unison is harder for a choir than rich harmony. If intonation begins shakily, the choir usually has a few moments to adjust chords. With unison, failure to match tones becomes immediately apparent. Furthermore, a choir more easily stops than starts. Unanimity of attack generally accompanies unanimity of pitch. Performances falter rhythmically and in pitch most likely at the beginning of a new section. However, a choir starts a phrase more easily if that phrase can be linked to a previous one. Howells's "Long, long ago" immediately puts up the hardest test: an opening quiet unison in the full choir, "just out of the blue." The Warland Singers put the line out fuzz-free as they wind their way through Howells's modal woods. Microscopic adjustments in chords occur now and then, but this is one beautiful performance, with a heart-stopping major-chord finale.

For those familiar with Penderecki's Threnody, Cello Concerto, or Polymorphia, his Song of Cherubim will probably pleasantly surprise. The big, shattering blocks of sound, the sheer sprawl of those works, give way to great intimacy, a strong, imaginative re-creation of Russian Orthodox church music (Penderecki dedicated the work to Rostropovich). For me, this is the finest work on the disc – a masterpiece by any test I know. Like most Penderecki, the music gets inside you right away. Unlike a lot of Penderecki, it never loses focus in a prodigality of notes. Much of my realization comes from the choir's astounding clarity of texture – from the quiet unison opening (yet another hurdle!) to big, fortissimo chords. The texture is clear, because the singers attack and release together and match tones gorgeously. The work lasts about six- and-a-half minutes – on the long side for a single a cappella movement. Impeccable choral technique isn't all of it. Warland shapes the narrative coherence and impetus of the piece. One thing not only leads to another, it leads to the right thing. Throughout the CD, and here especially, Warland shows he is an artist, as well as trainer and coach.

The Corpus Christi Carol has proved a particular favorite of composers, with settings, among others, by Warlock and Britten (in a Boy was Born, not, as the album notes contend, a Ceremony of Carols). The Norwegian Trond Kverno's spare work (after the Penderecki, its relative harmonic simplicity hits like a glass of ice water) challenges a choir by its sectional nature – not only the poem's verse-refrain structure, but the distinctness of each musical phrase. The performance could simply fall apart into sections of equal (and therefore no particular) interest like tangerine wedges, simply by stopping and starting, stopping and starting. Counteracting this, however, Kverno has provided a progressive intensification of fairly simple materials, including a gorgeous section for smaller men's group. As with the Penderecki, Warland never drops the work's narrative thread.

Stephen Paulus, a composer well-known and often played in the Midwest (and elsewhere; check out Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony for a representative dip into his work – New World NW 363-2), like Barber has founded no school. His music has strong traditional ties, but he's no moss-back. He's old-fashioned only in the sense that he doesn't have the need to say the thing that's never been said, but to find the right thing to say. Harmonically, "Evensong" will throw a choir in fits. It uses tone clusters, quietly, to create a kind of impressionist haze. On the other hand, it's just tonal enough, with haze melting into pure major chords. The Warland Singers handle this well, but I get the impression they could do even better. For almost any other group, I wouldn't have bothered to raise the question.

In his series of lectures The Making of Music, Vaughan Williams writes:

… the art of singing is nearly universal; most people can sing a bit. Moreover, the technique and the nature of the human voice is very much what it was two thousand years ago. This is why choral music has remained in the straight road much more than has instrumental writing. In a cappella singing there are no instrument makers to lure the composer aside with exciting new devices. When Stravinsky writes his Symphony of Psalms, one can feel that he is dealing with something fundamental, almost primitive. In the choral music of Copland the tradition of the white spiritual unconsciously affects his music. Music for voices deals with something essential, not with the tricks of presentation/

I can't call it a hard-and-fast rule, but it does seem to me that the essence of many great composers lies in their music for chorus. I agree with Vaughan Williams about Stravinsky, and I believe the remark applies to Poulenc as well. The Stravinsky "Ave Maria" is stripped-down, returning again and again to a I-iii modulation (in C, a C-major chord going to an e-minor one), following a tendency in music for the Russian Orthodox Church to avoid the dominant-tonic cadence (recall the first phrase of Eine kleine Nachtmusik; it implies dominant-tonic). This little masterpiece gets programmed quite a bit. Elmer Iseler and the Festival Singers of Toronto recorded it for CBS's Stravinsky series, and it's a fine performance. However, Warland spins it out in a unique way: the blend is smoother, the dynamics more closely observed, the line like steel. The whole nears the intimacy of a string quartet. He closes by having the Singers hum the entire piece through, something I don't remember in the score or in any other performance, but it works its way inside you, like the still, small voice.

The Poulenc, another repertoire staple, disappoints a bit. The choir solves, like few others, the difficulties of Poulenc's abrupt switches from major to minor mode and back again. However, Poulenc's choral music is almost all stops and starts. The dangers here are that the music's momentum will grind to a halt and that the choir will not attack together. Nothing like that happens, of course, but there's a hesitant, balancing-eggs quality to the performance. The choir hasn't absorbed the work fully. They get through without mishap, but also without style.

Pärt's Magnificat pursues its course single-mindedly, even relentlessly. It consists almost entirely of an f-minor harmony, spaced in different ways, with interest provided by passing notes (notes out of f-minor, leading quickly back to f-minor) and spare, changing textures. The variety of the latter astonishes all by itself. Within a very small compass, Warland seizes every opportunity for variety. The singers are challenged not only to keep pitch, but to match tones exactly. Pärt's demand is a cruel one, and the singers meet it. I keep mentioning their extraordinary ability to keep pitch, but it's not the usual sort of pitch training, where everything is referred to the fixed standard of the piano or organ. Instead, the standard is that of perfectly in-tune strings, with the players adjusting microtonally as the music modulates. The Gregg Smith Singers seem to me an example of the former. They definitely sing in tune, but intonation as such seldom contributes to the excitement of a performance, as it so often does with the Warland Singers. Several times during this CD, I've thought of the Quartetto Italiano, but never more so than in the Pärt. An extraordinary account.

Clearly, I like this disc. However, I want to quibble briefly with the inclusion of some program items – mainly the Rachmaninoff, the Hess, the Heitzeg, the Kverno, and the Houkom. It's not that the pieces are unworthy. However, the Rachmaninoff has been recorded before, more than once. Further, I have a great deal of trouble getting used to the Singers' sound – lighter and clearer than Russian choirs – in this repertoire. It's Russian Church music without the sour-cream bottom. I'm not ready for Orthodox lite.

I think Marjorie Hess's setting of Hardy's "Oxen" a failure, but I do compare it to Vaughan Williams' perfect setting in Hodie. Stephen Heitzeg's music for Cummings' "little tree" fails for me as well, but then again, the poem fails for me. Heitzeg can't wash the sticky treacle from the words. The Houkom and the Kverno are beautiful, but this choir can do anything. I would have preferred to hear something that really challenged the group. I also admit that Cathedral Classics (with the major works of Frank Martin's Mass and Howells's Requiem) may have tweaked my expectations. Why not Distler's Weihnachtsgeschichte, Hindemith's Mass and 12 Madrigals, or a badly-needed new recording of Britten's a Boy was Born ? There aren't that many choirs who could credibly even get through any of these works, much less triumph with them. Warland's Singers are thoroughbreds. They deserve to perform material that matches them.

Despite my whining, I highly recommend this disc and I'm positively greedy for the next one.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz