Reviewing these two disks together makes a kind of sense. In many ways, the United States is heir to the great Scandinavian choral tradition, especially in the Midwest. Yet, the differences between both recitals strike you more forcibly than the similarities. Most of the contrasts stem from the fact that the New Amsterdamers are volunteers and the Danes professionals of the highest caliber. The professional chorus has usually been a precarious proposition in the United States. Where are the lofty Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner Chorales? What news of the incisive Gregg Smith, Dale Warland, and Robert Page Singers? Have you heard the Kenneth Jewell Chorale lately? Ubi sunt ? Scandinavians have at least one crack professional group per country, usually associated with state broadcasting and thus government-supported.
Skipping over the political land mines, we can at least say that this has artistic consequences on the musical life of both regions. For example, as much as I may admire Randall Thompson's "Peaceable Kingdom," "Frostiana," and "Odes of Horace," I must admit they lack the complexity of his instrumental works. I see very little stylistic connection between Halsey Stevens's choral and orchestral music. Ives, Barber, Foss, Bernstein, and Fine are exceptions among American composers. Their choral writing matches the complexity of their instrumental, while Copland wrote an exceptional piece. "In the Beginning" is almost a freak in his output (he admitted he did not like the sound of an unaccompanied chorus). What hits almost immediately about the Scandinavian composers on the Chandos disc is that they don't have a special "choral style." Their music for chorus is like their music for anything else. In contrast, does our usual bifurcation stem from the likelihood that the performance of our native choral music will fall to volunteers rather than to full-time pros? Is there a subconscious or commercially-instigated "writing down?" After all, past a certain point, Ives (the really great exception among our "classics") gave up writing for immediate performance and also did not depend on it to live.
I have no answer to any of this. These questions simply popped up as I listened.
On the other hand, Scandinavian composers sometimes run into the problem that while the piece is complex, it's not particularly interesting. The works of Norgard and Sandström represented on the Chandos disc fall into this trap. "And Time Shall Be No More" is about as gray as a Stockholm winter. The most intriguing thing about Sandström's setting of Blake's "Cradle Song" and "Tyger" is the conception of "simultaneous setting." That is, both poems musically interact. "The Cradle Song" begins dominant, but literal whispers of "The Tyger" form an undercurrent. "Tyger" moves into the foreground as "Cradle Song" recedes, and then the process reverses. Both pieces demand the utmost in pitch and ensemble. Unfortunately, reading about the works interests you more than listening to them, and there's no strong poetic connection between the two poems, even though Blake is a poet of contrast. In a sense, Norgard and Sandström waste the artistry of the choir, even as they hone it.
The New Amsterdam Singers consist of a large "community" body and a smaller, "picked" chamber ensemble. The large group simply hasn't got the voices. They sound tired and easily-tired. Intonation usually begins shaky and then settles into consensus. Typically, the pitch of a phrase's opening attack splats a bit (usually in the sopranos) before settling into the sound from the rest of the group. Halsey Stevens's warm classic "Go, Lovely Rose" sounds out-of-focus because the various sections can't quite agree on pitch. Barber's "Reincarnations" requires virtuosic ensemble, articulation, hairpin dynamics changes, and dead-on pitch. Some of its most interesting effects include the sudden, perfectly in-tune, and unexpected major triad (the opening "Mary Hynes," especially). For those familiar with Gregg Smith's classic (and out-of-print) recording or even the more recent performance from Peter Rutenberg and the Los Angeles Chamber Singers (Klavier, KCD11052), the New Amsterdamers sound comparatively tentative. The chamber sub-chorus does better in witty, pop-influenced madrigals by Matthew Harris to well-known Shakespearean lyrics, but these don't really test a choir, although they certainly benefit from a good choir. Much the same can be said of Hovhaness' almost-cantorial "David Wept for Slain Absalom," Ives' very early (and very sentimental) "Crossing the Bar," and Randall Thompson's "Tarantella." Brant's zany "3-Way Canon Blues" sounds better the fewer voices you have, in my opinion. The deliberate melodic clichés stand out more clearly. Here, it is sung by the entire group.
The Albany sound recording seems adequate, although the fuzz in the choir's ensemble makes this a bit difficult to judge.
The thoroughly professional Danish National Radio Choir not surprisingly achieves greater success and with far more demanding material. The three major works – Tormis's "Curse upon Iron," Rautavaara's "Suite de Lorca," and Jersild's "Three Romantic Choral Songs" – challenge a choir in different ways. Jersild's songs offer the least spectacular, but nevertheless substantial, tests. They demand mastery of both texture and intonation. They range from bare 2-part counterpoint to full chords which call for the richest sound a choir can give. The Danes attack the leaner sections cleanly and greatly attentive to the purity of intervals. My disappointment in their tone comes down to a matter of vocal style. The women's voices sound simply too "white" for me.
Like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, the Estonian Veljo Tormis has been mistakenly pigeon-holed as a "minimalist." All three composers have far more in common with Lou Harrison and Sofia Gubaidulina than with John Adams or Philip Glass. I would call them "ritualists" instead. "The Curse upon Iron" uses the style of the eddas to make a powerful anti-war statement. For most of its eleven minutes, Tormis builds an obsessive rhythm on a pedal tone, established both by choir and, believe it or not, by a "tuned" bass drum. Throughout, the composer intersperses chromatic scalar runs, outright simultaneous glissandi from all parts, shouts, and shrieks. Harmony emphasizes tritones and melody is built on half-steps. How the choir keeps pitch, I have no idea. The piece jumps – a "Rite of Spring" for voices. Tormis uses the singers percussively, and the Danes respond in spades with rat-a-tat articulation of consonants and big-shoulder attacks. An overwhelming performance.
If Rautavaara's "Suite de Lorca" has not yet become a choral classic, it should. Rautavaara approaches every medium and form in a fresh, imaginative way. More than a compendium of contemporary choral sounds, the Suite magnificently echoes the text, much like Poulenc's choral works, and summons the spirit of Spanish music while avoiding its clichés. The opening "Canción de Jinete" (Rider's Song) gets the chorus to evoke the guitar, as does the final, powerful "Malagueña." "El Grito" (The Scream) predictably uses upward glissandi and, not so predictably, downward ones that call to mind the wind. Throughout, the choir is taxed not only to display its technique, but also to declaim the poems so that the listener can forget the technique and be moved. The Danish Radio Choir does both.
Chandos provides a superb acoustic for the choir – clear, bright, neither overly-reverberant nor too dry. Despite the repertoire deadwood, I strongly recommend this disc.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz