Although Robert Shaw passed away in 1999, standards for choral performance remain as high as ever in Atlanta, if we are to judge by this new CD of unaccompanied choral works. This is exactly the sort of music Shaw loved, and the care he would have taken in preparing it obviously has been taken here as well. Many if not all of the works recorded here are well within the reach of the average choral group, but there is a huge gap between singing this music and singing it very well. Norman Mackenzie and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus bridge this gap with discipline and affection. It is appropriate that the program begins and ends with different settings of O sacrum convivium, a Latin text comparing Communion to a "sacred banquet" - as good a description as any of the music on this CD.
The longest work here is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor for four soloists and double mixed chorus. Although the composer was an agnostic, he wrote some of the past century's finest sacred music, and the Mass is his masterpiece in this genre. Vaughan Williams' use of "archaic" harmonies suggests the music of Thomas Tallis, and it is not stretching a point to consider the Mass as a sort of tribute to Tallis. I am used to hearing this work sung by British choirs, and with boys singing the soprano and alto parts. Nevertheless, the Atlanta women sing this work with a fresh and boyish timbre… but with very adult discipline and technical skills. A performance such as this one, then, is the best of both worlds.
If the Vaughan Williams is the longest and most impressive work, Olivier Messiaen's O sacrum convivium! is the most beautiful. (Typically, for this enthusiastic Christian, Messiaen added the exclamation mark at the end of the title, and the closing "Alleluia.") Messiaen's rich choral writing sounds as if it would work very well if it were transcribed for his beloved organ. The music's hushed ecstasy and sensuous harmonies lend a palpably physical component to spiritual belief.
The Tavener and the Duruflé works are becoming increasingly popular among even American choral societies, and Mackenzie's performances will provide such groups with a reference for years to come. The Copland motets are more of a curiosity. These were written in 1920 during the composer's studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Later in life, Copland was somewhat dismissive of these student works, and while they are not as memorable as the other music on this program, they are interesting and attractive.
Flawless performances have been "blessed" (if you will) with flawless engineering. There's just enough atmosphere around the voices to make them glow. (The venue was Atlanta's Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip.) The booklet contains extensive notes about the performers and the music, as well as texts and translations. Beatifically recommended!
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle