Libera is to boys' choirs what Russell Watson is to classical tenors – a sweeter and more popular but less classifiable alternative. As EMI's website tells us, they don't think of themselves as choirboys, "but rather as an alternative kind of boy band." (Heaven forbid!) These boys – 23 are listed on this CD – attend various schools in London and are between the ages of seven and sixteen. Libera has been around for a few years; although Visions is only their second album for EMI, there have been earlier Libera releases on the Warner Classics and Erato labels. Their director, Robert Prizeman, writes many of their songs – all of them "spiritual" if not overtly religious in content – and also arranges them from the standard classical repertoire. For example, the title track on their 2001 release, Luminosa (Warner Classics 0927-40117-2), is a surprising arrangement of Debussy's Clair de lune, and on the same CD, a "Lacrymosa" has been created from the "Aquarium" movement of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals. (Water is water, I guess.) The formula is to take boys' voices – sometimes individually but usually together – and to show them off at their ethereal best through well-judged, harmonically rich, and often stratospheric arrangements. Accompaniments range from a fairly traditional organ to a warm wallow in nevertheless eyebrow-raising sound. (Who expects to hear synthesized rhythm and other electronics on a boys' choir CD?)
Prizeman and his boys stick with what works on Visions, and who can blame them? It would be easy to react condescendingly to Libera, especially to their very approachable repertoire, which is a blend of sugary piety and New Age "cool." What silences criticism, however, is the singing of the boys, which is beautiful enough to fall into the category of a guilty pleasure, and Prizeman's arrangements, which show an unerring understanding for the effects that can produced by a group such as this one. (It's interesting that I've never heard a girls' choir approach what can be done by a group of their male counterparts, at least in terms of timbre.) Yes, it's sweet, but tell me you've never swiped a treat from your kid's Halloween treat bag!
As always, Prizeman wrote most of the material, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. His talents as a composer might not be broad or very deep, but one can't deny that he's an expert at creating four-minute chunks of heaven on earth. Fans of the King's Singers will nod in approval at the inclusion of John David's "New Day." The Prayer from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is given the Libera treatment to good effect. Pachelbel's Canon, which appeared on Libera's debut and Luminosa CDs as a "Sanctus," reappears here, in a new recording, as a "Locus iste." The duplication is the only thing that's disappointing about this CD; I guess EMI wanted to have this track – probably Libera's signature selection – in their library as well.
The gorgeous engineering suggests ample studio trickery was used to reinforce the Libera "sound"; one wonders what these boys sound like without it. All of the Libera CDs have displayed pop music's reticence about anything akin to an essay in the booklet about the music or the performers, and Visions is no exception. No matter. You might have to wait until you are safely alone in the house to play this CD, but you will play it. Again and again.
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle