Summary for the Busy Executive: An honest-to-goodness Wow!
For some reason, France has not produced first-rank choral groups with the same frequency as Britain, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. Indeed, until recently, only Marcel Couraud's Ensemble Vocale stood comparison with, say, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir or The Sixteen. The original Swingle Singers and Les Double Six, although virtuoso groups, nevertheless didn't do the classic choral repertoire. Consequently, this disc by the Accentus Chamber Choir hit me as a wonderful surprise. I had not heard of Laurence Equilbey (a woman, apparently; I have no idea how she came by the moniker "Laurence"), but she has a terrific choral pedigree, having worked with Sweden's legendary Eric Ericson. It shows. French choirs tend to either a thin reediness, suitable for small pieces, or a heavy, operatic sound, perfect for things like Berlioz or even the big religious pieces of Messiaen and Poulenc, but not so good for most other choral music. Accentus has the bracingly clean tone color of Scandinavian choirs with a slight hint of the opera house when necessary.
As the album title says, this disc features choral transcriptions of both instrumental works and songs. Having done some of this sort of arranging, I must say that these pieces astounded me. To go from instrument to voice, for example, immediately brings up the problem of range. One can't happily transcribe pitches. Instruments can go both higher and lower than not only one voice, but a choir of voices. I once arranged Debussy's "Girl with Flaxen Hair" for choir and had to deal with either an impossibly high range at the end or a difficult low range throughout. I came up with, I must say, an ingenious solution, but I did have to sweat for it, even after I found the "transposing key." The Debussy is fairly straightforward. On the other hand, I've tried arranging the Villa-Lôbos fifth Bachiana for choir. The restricted range of the cello ensemble encouraged me, but problems of counterpoint and part-writing came up that I haven't yet solved. One could eliminate the counterpoint, but that radically alters the character of the piece. It becomes too much of a cheat. More thought… more thought.
Of the five arrangers on the disc – Gérard Pesson, Clytus Gottwald, Knut Nystedt, Samuel Barber, and Franck Krawczyk – four of them to some extent derive from Ligeti's choral Lux aeterna of 1966. It's most apparent in Nystedt's Immortal Bach, what amounts to a recomposition of "Komm süsser Tod." Here, Nystedt slows everything almost to dead stop and draws out the dissonances of Bach's chorale harmonization. This results in a striking work which seems to shimmer in and out of consonance. Franck Krawczyk has made a Lacrimosa and a lullaby from Chopin piano works. I consider these the least successful of the set, though whether that stems from the arrangement or my lack of enthusiasm for the originals, I can't say. At any rate, nothing in them grabs me. My dislike of Barber's Agnus Dei, transcribed from his Adagio for Strings, I've spoken of many times before. Essentially, it's much less interesting, much worse-written for choir, than his original choral music. The long pedal notes of the strings don't translate well to the voices. However, I find myself in a minority. The popularity of both the original string version and of the transcription among top choirs probably ensures that the Agnus Dei will hang around for a while. I hope it doesn't overshadow Barber's Reincarnations, Twelfth Night, A Stopwatch and an Ordinance Map, The Lovers, or The Prayers of Kierkegaard.
Pesson contributes the single most spectacular arrangement, a transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth. Even the choice of text rates mention: fragments from August von Platen on Venice and Italy. Pesson deliberately courts the atmosphere of Death in Venice – the movie, not the book. Somehow he suggests the original orchestral colors and, more importantly, the orchestral shimmer of that movement.
Everything else falls to Gottwald, who contributes his own Mahler transcription of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," in every way as fine as Pesson's. He also gives us Hugo-Wolf songs, as well as songs by Berg, Ravel, and Debussy. Avoiding a "one size fits all" strategy, his Wolf and Berg fit into the German part-song tradition, while the Debussy and Ravel have affinities with those composers' orchestral music, as opposed to their choral writing. Each Gottwald setting might show less ambition than the Pesson, but it is nonetheless very finely worked.
As far as the performances go, take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I judge Accentus by the highest standards I have because it meets them. Nothing is terrible. Nothing is shoddily done. This is all difficult, though beautiful, repertoire. Intonation goes occasionally wonky, by maybe two cents, in the Barber, and the chords sound a bit thick. As I say, the Chopin does little for me. However, the Mahler – both Pesson's and Gottwald's – raptures me out. The choral mechanics are so much there, you take them for granted. What really impresses is the sense of forward momentum, very difficult for most choirs, which tend to squat in slow music. The phrasing and the building of long lines stand among the most subtle and refined I've heard, even among the great orchestras. The tonal stolidity that plagues the Chopin and the Barber absolutely disappears everywhere else. We not only get the clarity of the German songs, but a different kind of clarity – more colorful, if you like – in the French.
For choral-music lovers, this is a must-have. Accentus even has a second volume of transcriptions (Naïve 5048), which I'll probably review sometime in the next two years. Meanwhile, don't wait for me.
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz