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CD Review

Dale Warland Singers

Bernstein & Britten

  • Benjamin Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb
  • Nancy Wertsch: Antiphon for God the Father
  • Stephen Paulus: Pilgrims' Hymn
  • Aharon Harlap: Bat Yiftach (Jephthah's Daughter)
  • William Albright: Kyrie from Chichester Mass
  • Egil Hovland: Gloria from Missa Misericordiae
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara: Credo
  • William Albright: Agnus Dei from Chichester Mass
  • Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
Dean Billmeyer, organ
Kathy Kienzle, harp
Jay Johnson, percussion
Dale Warland Singers/Dale Warland
American Choral Catalog ACC123 66:33
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wow.

Yet another winner from Dale Warland and his singers. I have yet to hear even a so-so performance from them. I'd call them the best choral group in the United States, except for the fact that I don't know every group out there, but I will call them my favorite. Warland has built a choral instrument that does all the basics of choral singing – intonation, diction, tonal beauty, ensemble, mastery of dynamics – as well as they can be done. Furthermore, he commits to a challenging repertoire, as you can easily see from this CD's program. Again and again, I found myself comparing Warland's accounts to classic versions, something that's not worth doing if the object of comparison is laughably worse. If I gave someone else an edge, it came mainly from "imprinting": rating something high because you heard it first. Nevertheless, Warland's performances are all first-rate and beat out those of some much better-known names.

The program on this CD pleases me a lot: choral classics by Britten and Bernstein mixed with the unusual and composers new to me. It's all at least attractive stuff and occasionally moving. I liked best the mass movements and Harlap's Bat Yiftach. A native Canadian now an Israeli citizen, Harlap provides what he calls a "mini-opera" and I call a cantata. Certainly, the story drips with drama – a counterpart to the Sacrifice of Isaac, except that, since it's a girl, there's no happy ending. Also, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Jephthah decides to sacrifice the first person to greet him after he wins a battle; it happens to be his daughter. The subject is really a natural for opera, but I know of no actual examples, though there's a wonderful symphony by Toch inspired by the story (Albany Records TROY021-2). Although Harlap gives us no opera, he does generate very powerful music. From opening wide leaps on the french horn accompanied by open fifths in the voices, to motor rhythms and canonic fragments (which reminded me of Ginastera's Lamentations of Jeremiah), Harlap conjures up the harsh might of the Old Testament. The lyrical sections mainly evoke Jewish cantorial chant. I can't pin down the idiom. Harlap has absorbed many sources, mostly neo-classical, but the sources don't get in the way of individual expression. Ten minutes of in effect a cappella singing (the chorus functions as an "orchestral base" supporting the vocal soloists and the horn), the work poses massive pitch problems, particularly when choir and horn must match tones after extended solo sections. The horn keeps everybody honest in their intonation. Furthermore, Warland sustains narrative interest throughout.

People probably know William Albright best as an organist and as a champion of ragtime and stride, but he composed for a variety of forces and in many genres. I particularly admired his performances of J. P. Johnson's stride pieces, boogie-woogie, and of his own works for organ. Before this time, I'd never heard any of his a cappella choral music. The movements from his Chichester Mass, written for the same cathedral as Bernstein's work, use dense, modally-based chords with fleecy, cloud-like dissonances. There's a great tenderness to both works. As one who spent a good deal of time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Albright's home, I actually knew him to speak to and heard many things that haven't been recorded but should be, including some wonderful theater music provided for local productions. Albright's death in 1998 (he had reached his early 50s) shocked many of us not only with the surprise of it but with the realization that we'd hear no more from him as performer or composer.

Norwegian composer Egil Hovland's "Gloria" and the Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Credo" use a similar language, heavily dependent on rhythmic accompanying figures. Both unsettle you emotionally. The excellent liner notes to the album describe the Hovland as "urgent music which seems to speak more of humanity's need to praise than the Creator's praiseworthiness." Rautavaara's work sparked an awareness of Finnish composers later than Sibelius but of Baltic composers generally. Rautavaara uses contemporary techniques with a classic Modernist sense of cohesion. He has produced music in so many different idioms, one can tell a Rautavaara piece only with difficulty. The unity of his work seems more an emotional one – usually dark and intense. Certainly, that's the case here with his standalone "Credo." It tells of the fragility and the nerve of faith. Warland's singers keep up the rhythmic propulsion of both Gloria and Credo, without pounding or over-insistence.

The two "star" works, written almost twenty-five years apart, share a link with their commissioner – Dr. Walter Hussey, who became Dean of Chichester Cathedral. I don't know of Hussey's other commissions, but he certainly struck gold here, because he knew whom to ask. Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, based on the composer's excerpts from a long poem by the 18th-century "mad poet" Christopher Smart, shows Britten's literary sophistication, among other things. Not all that familiar to readers of the Forties, Smart's madness consisted of religious mania. He loved God to the point where he would insist that passers-by on the street would get down on their knees and pray with him. He was committed on at least three occasions to an asylum, which probably didn't help him any. Samuel Johnson, coming to the poet's defense, remarked that he would sooner pray with Kit Smart as anyone else. Smart's Jubilate Agno mixes daring imagery with at times mere babble. Some of it is incoherent as well as crazy. Britten not only chose well but organized the texts into a thematic progression. His work begins with a general praise to God, moves to Biblical figures praising God, to animals praising God, to the flowers praising God, to even Christopher Smart in his prison darkness praising God, to the letters of the alphabet, to musical instruments. Britten's music comes from, for me, his most sheerly beautiful period, the early to mid-Forties, which also saw Ceremony of Carols and the Festival Te Deum. Just about everything he produced at this time counts among the wonders of music, and Rejoice in the Lamb is no exception. It runs to several brief sections with opportunities for chorus, soprano (here a male soprano), alto, tenor, and bass soloists, and a kick-butt part for the organ. My favorite part is the tenor solo:

For the flowers are great blessings
For the flowers have their angels even the words of God's Creation.
For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.

Words and music come together here to an effect greater than either of them alone. What Britten does with the word "peculiarly" you must hear to believe.

My two favorite recordings heretofore were those conducted by George Guest for British Decca and by Robert Shaw with his Chorale for RCA. Philip Ledger's recent account on EMI disappoints big-time – clunky, stodgy, no juice, despite the addition of percussion in the composer's own arrangement. Warland's choir takes a back seat to none of these, but the soloists are weaker. Shaw had the most exciting and rhythmically buoyant account as well as the best soloists: Saramae Endich, Florence Kopleff, Jon Humphrey, Raymond Murcell. Guest had the advantage of the British choral sound in a British work. But for the soloists, Warland's would have been my favorite recording. As it stands, his choir surpasses the Robert Shaw Chorale in its prime.

During his life, Bernstein suffered the dismissal of those who had little idea of how a good deal of American art works. Even now, I've read clueless accounts of Bernstein's music, typified by the liner notes to Cleobury's CD with King's College of Chichester Psalms. The writer deplores the mingling of vernacular idioms with hoch Kultur, as if one contaminated the other. Most American art – at least in this century – carries on a dialogue with pop and folk. This happens from at least Whitman on. One can also argue that the best of our pop has nothing to apologize for. If Schubert's "Wohin" is a great song, so is Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Any More." If Saint Joan is great drama, then so is John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and one doesn't need to invoke a different, easier set of criteria to hold that point of view. Certainly Dean Hussey understood this when he wrote to Bernstein, "I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music." Bernstein obliged, even to the point of rewriting a discarded chorus from the musical for the psalm "Why do the nations rage." The Chichester Psalms count as one of Bernstein's finest works and as a major addition to twentieth-century choral music. I think both Bernstein's accounts (on Sony and Deutsche Grammophon) authoritative. Shaw on Telarc is quite fine and has a neat coupling of Bernstein's Missa Brevis, adapted by the composer from his "Latin choruses" for The Lark. The problem comes with the soloists. Bernstein specified a boy soprano for the second movement, a setting of Psalms 23 and 2. Shaw uses Derek Lee Ragin, and I don't complain. Warland also resorts to a male soprano, and it satisfies me less. Ragin's unearthly beauty of sound makes me forget the maturity of the voice. Warland's soloist is quite good, but I keep wondering whether he's a bit too old for the part. Again, the choral work is the strongest part of Warland's performance. The canons during the "nations' rage" of the second movement come out far more cleanly than in any other recorded version I've heard, including the composer's. However, I think Warland's interpretation a bit too restrained, though nowhere near the bland Cleobury's. The Warland Singers' exciting way with consonants helps, as does a razor-sharp percussion player. Bernstein had an electric and electrifying personality and it comes through like gangbusters in his music. You've got to commit to it and risk excess. Warland may be simply too tasteful, unfortunately.

The sound improves on earlier Warland CDs, ever since they switched recording halls – more warmth at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota) chapel. Despite my reservations on the Bernstein, this is one beautiful disc, and I recommend it highly.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz