Summary for the Busy Executive: Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!
Christmas music seems to fall into three categories: rejoicing and splendor, praise to the pleasures of overeating, and contemplation. This CD concentrates on the latter. The title, of course, comes from the ecstatic psaltery of Hildegard von Bingen:
And again summer.
The islands in the well.
The fish of the moon and the fish of the sun.
The dill waist-high, the rustling of the umbels,
the unrolled leaves of the ferns.
Leave a rose for winter.
Minnesotans, of course, know from choral singing, with at least three very fine groups of national rep within the state. The best of these – and I believe the best American choral ensemble of all (world-class, in fact) – is the Dale Warland Singers. The set of first-rate American groups happens to be a tough field, with strong competition from Charles Bruffy's Kansas City Chorale, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Chamber Singers, John Oliver's Tanglewood Chorus, Lawrence Bandfield's Santa Fe Desert Chorale, the venerable Westminster Choir, and a few others. The Dale Warland annual Christmas concert is an event that compels people from neighboring states to make the trek, usually through cold and heavy snow, to St. Paul. If I had any idea of their concert schedule at all, I would seriously consider flying up from where I live, practically at the opposite end of the country, in Louisiana. And, yes, they're that good. Fortunately, they record. I can't imagine anyone who loves choral singing not wanting this CD.
What sets the group apart? First, to some extent, it's a matter of doing the basics perfectly. Pitch is dead-on, as is rhythm, and their diction is clear. Often the latter two go hand in hand. When everyone attacks and releases together, consonants sound together and usually more sharply. Although the CD thoughtfully provides printed lyrics, you don't really need them. Yet, in the matter of pitch, I would add that their concept of intonation differs from most other groups. The Gregg Smith Singers, for example, which counted among their number a bunch of people with perfect pitch (ie, folks who could sing A=440 for you), sounded like a piano. That is, Bb seemed always the same pitch, regardless of the key. The problem is that key and even chord changes call for an adjustment of individual pitches. The model for intonation is the string player, who can move his fingertips micro-increments up or down the neck of his instrument as necessary. As far as intonation is concerned, the Dale Warland Singers sound less like Pollini and more like the Quartetto Italiano. They're not merely in tune: they are excitingly in tune. Their intonation actually contributes to the thrill of their performance.
Second is repertory. Warland both knows the bedrock masterpieces of the past and also has an uncanny knack for finding the great stuff of the present – music which not only discovers and explores new sonorities for the choir, but sounds beautiful as well. But it's not just fumbling in the dark, hoping to find treasure. You get the strong impression that Warland has a very good idea of what he wants to hear. For instance, just about every work on this CD teaches you something new about choral writing. I believe Warland to a great extent influenced by the Scandinavian and Baltic traditions, where major composers contribute choral works no different in quality or general approach than their instrumental ones. In the United States, where musicians and publishers generally perceive the choral market as amateur in both technique and musical sophistication, this becomes the exception, rather than the rule. Warland has fashioned an instrument capable of taming any terror a composer might dream up, and – even better – the repertoire he chooses continually challenges the group, as well as the audience. He takes his choral Ferrari out on the track, rather than merely to the supermarket. He doesn't throw the technique away on, say, "The Little Drummer Boy."
Finally, we come to the matter of line, by which I mean the way the piece moves forward in time. A good line to me moves the piece along. It's the impetus behind the music. If you can picture a wave breaking against the rocks and the force of it going past the rocks, you have a good idea of impetus behind the notes. It's what spins out a phrase, makes the listener hungry for what's next, and, ultimately helps give you the coherence of the music. It's an art that can take a lifetime to master and for me defines a great musician. Needless to say, the Warland Singers have such a line that many of these tracks, despite their length, seem to be taken in one Homeric breath. The line is also an art that belongs to a conductor. One way to shape it comes through dynamics – crescendo and diminuendo. Most choirs can get louder. Getting softer and softer dynamics in general really test them. One very seldom hears a piano or pianissimo without flab or breathiness. It's the difference between mumbling and an intense whisper. This is also true of orchestras, by the way. Furthermore, many conductors today don't really understand the importance of falling back to build again and don't insist on it from their players – one reason to me why so many current performances go nowhere. I think the mastery of dimuendo and the low dynamic a large part of Warland's secret.
The CD transfers a 1989 cassette release. Warland has chosen a beautiful program, with only three carols, none of which can be called overly-familiar. The rest is sacred music or music on specific Christmas themes. Almost all of it moves slowly, almost all of it is contemplative, and much of it moves in block chords rather than contrapuntal lines. Yet the variety in the midst thereof is downright amazing. By the end of the CD, I still wanted more. Warland himself leads off with an arrangement of the Coventry Carol ("Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child"), which in itself takes guts. The three-voice "original" (probably based on a folk tune) and the Martin Shaw and the Shaw-Parker arrangements fit the tune so well that most would think another setting superfluous. Without resorting to the bizarre, however, Warland manages to make us hear the carol in a new way, as sweet discords spice the general modal course of things. The amazing part of the performance for me came in the verses of 2-part writing, for women and for men respectively. The notes were so in tune that when upper and lower voices came together, you could no longer tell which were sopranos and which altos, or which were basses and which tenors. Extraordinary.
John Tavener's "Hymn to the Mother of God" has by now become a choral classic, although it's only slightly more than a decade old, with many performances and at least one other recording. Warland got there early, when the piece was only four years old. The music – no surprise – moves like the choral music of the Orthodox church (Tavener's a Greek Orthodox communicant). Some of it reminded me of the Russian Orthodox music of Gretchaninoff, particularly the upper part writing and the slow, steady gait of processional music. Messiaen's "O sacrum convivium" has become a choral staple, with lush chords absolute hell (you should pardon the expression) to keep in tune. Most often, it doesn't matter, since the part writing is so thick, you normally can't distinguish individual tones anyway in the general haze of voices. Sung by this choir, however, it becomes almost a different piece, one of feathery harmonies. As good as this is, the long dimuendo to the serene rapture at the end of the piece is even better. Undoubtedly, no one surpasses Warland as a trainer of choirs, but the training always serves musicianship of the highest order. The honing of the choir sets Warland free to explore interpretive avenues simply unavailable to most conductors.
In John Paynter's "The Rose," the Warland Singers give us a succession of dynamic arches – loudening and softening – as the piece moves in and out of measurable rhythm and flirts with aleatoric techniques, much in the same way Britten did in the "Pleni sunt coeli" section of the War Requiem's "Sanctus." After some rather intense works, the choir sings a charming arrangement by guitarist Jeffrey Van of a traditional Mexican carol and an original composition that adopts some of the folk idiom. Van accompanies. One of the worst things you can do to a Christmas carol, in my opinion, is get too fancy with it and gunk it up with massive instrumentation or show-off counterpoints and acoutrements. While Van's arrangement is hardly the work of the unlettered, it respects the power in the tune itself. It sets off the gem, rather than overpowers it. Furthermore, the choir performs movingly, without condescension, which sometimes becomes a danger for a really good choir. The technical ease of the music misleads one into relaxing too much. However, the Warland Singers will touch you. It made me imagine how the original "Silent Night" (also for voice and guitar) must have sounded.
The choral music of the Renaissance stands in the same relation to choirs as Haydn and Beethoven string quartets stand to string players: the basis of the repertoire. You can tell a lot about a choir from how well they perform Renaissance works. I'm not talking about style or historically-informed performance here. I don't know how you'd even begin to go about establishing that for vocal music anyway. However, the often elaborate contrapuntal nature of this music does demand certain things: chiefly, clarity of texture, achieved through unanimity of rhythm and pitch, and a sense of when to come forward and when to hold back – that is, a sense of which line comes before the others at a given moment. In the Victoria, which takes off from the Ave Maria plainchant, that is mainly the line of the chant and the points of imitation as one voice hands them off to others. Scholars generally label Tomás Luis de Victoria, a friend of St. Teresa of Avila, as "school of Palestrina," but his music replaces the cool of Palestrina with a spiritual intensity and yearning typical of Spanish mysticism. At his best, his music burns like the angelic arrow that drove St. Teresa to ecstasy. The Ave Maria setting, however, sings at slightly lower heat, like the slightly rueful lute song of a trouvère to his lady, except that here it's to the Lady. Cadences here are beautifully in tune, sweet as regret. Hans Leo Hassler frequently incorporates folk elements into his compositions. "Verbum caro," however, is a highly sophisticated motet in the Venetian polychoral style, full of antiphonal juxtapositions of massed groups – women against men, half the singers of both genders against the other half and against the merged mass. Warland adds to this a brilliant use of contrasting dynamics, without necessarily resorting to an "echo" choir.
Kverno's "Ave maris stella" is probably my favorite new piece on the CD. As it happens, I first heard Kverno's music at a Dale Warland concert, so this seems to be someone Warland has championed. Although written in 1976, it has the vigor of classic modernism – strong, effective rhythm, a strong sense of movement from here to there, and not a wasted note. We can say the same thing of Carney's "Angel Gabriel" (one of the few up-tempo numbers) and Poulenc's "O magnum mysterium" from his set of four Christmas motets. Poulenc, against what almost everybody must have thought initially, became one of the great composers of religious music, fashioning a unique idiom of such disparate elements as Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, Renaissance modal progressions, Fauré chromaticism, and even a very secular, very Gallic breeziness at times. The music doesn't long for heaven so much as honor it for the pleasures of earth. I don't hear cherubim or would-be seraphim singing in Poulenc, but human beings. Since I'm no angel myself, that's precisely why the music appeals to me. The difficulties of Poulenc's motet lie first in the harmonic instability created by the clash (both simultaneous and sequential) of major and minor thirds and sevenths, and second in the construction of the motet in short phrases (a lot of rests only small distances apart). Despite these short "breaths," you still need to build the long line – to sing "through" the rests while observing them. Is there any doubt? A gorgeous performance. They should only record the whole set.
Sandström's "Agnus Dei" is mostly an unremarkable piece which plays around with shifting tone clusters and which nevertheless contains a remarkable moment – the end, where the harmonic fog dissolves into an absolutely radiant major chord. Warland and his singers catch that moment and thus lift the piece several notches, enough to erase the memory of the nothing much that preceded it. You realize that to get that moment, you had to endure the ennui.
Few outside choral singers, organists, and Canadians will probably recognize Healy Willan's name. Yet, many think of his work with great fondness. "The Three Kings" is one of his best. The problem is its essentially narrative musical structure, despite the regular strophes of its Laurence Housman text. A conductor can easily turn in a performance of separate moments – ie, one which drops the narrative. Warland triumphs first, because you can understand the words his choir sings, and second because he can build a long span of crescendo, filled with forward momentum. One phrase seamlessly flows to the next, even when the choir temporarily falls back, until the whole thing culminates in the blaze of "Come in, come in, ye Kings!" It may not be a Brahms motet, but it's still a gem, slightly reminiscent of the church music of Howells.
Tavener comes up again with a setting of Blake's "The Lamb." Many have set this poem, and most settings try to find a musical equivalent of the echoes and repetitions of the text ("Little Lamb, who made thee? / Dost thou know who made thee?"), usually settling on some form of contrapuntal imitation. Tavener finds an almost Gordian solution: he repeats the same idea throughout, with just enough variation to keep it from going stale. Of course, it helps that the idea itself bears repeating. The Warland Singers give you the effect of great simplicity, but that effect is very hard to bring off. This is why most legal and governmental language is so cluttered: it's equally hard to say exactly what you mean and exactly what you don't mean.
Andrzej Koszewski's "Iesu parvule" wins in the category of Most Exploratory Sonorities, although it's expressively substantial as well. The most outstanding effect is the accompaniment of the singers by quiet whistling, which at first prolongs the last note of phrases and then floats where it will, forlorn as the winter wind. The mostly stark textures of the piece evoke the "silence in the snowy fields" – all extremely moving.
The recorded sound, although a bit hard to my ear, is at least a natural acoustic and fits the music very well. An outstanding release.
Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz