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CD Review

The Gregorian Heritage

Gregorian Based Choral Masterworks

Voces Novae et Antiquae/Ross
Arkay Records AR6145
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Between the breakup of the Robert Shaw Chorale and the 80s, choral activity in the United States kept a very low profile. There were, of course, specialist groups like the Boston Camerata, but the general vocal ensemble of about 20-35 singers, devoted to repertory classics from all eras, largely went unrecorded. Even as fine and prestigious a group like the Gregg Smith Singers bounced from small label to small label and limited tours. It's not that choral groups weren't being formed, but with few exceptions, they weren't heard outside their region.

For some reason, this has begun to change. There are at least five first-rate U.S. groups on CD, and even more if you include Canada. The venerable Westminster Choir, Brigham Young University's University Singers, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Peter Rutenberg's Los Angeles Chamber Singers, Charles Bruffy's Kansas City Chorale, Dennis Keene's Voices of Ascension, and, of course, the Dale Warland Singers I've raved about before. That all these groups are spread across the country points, I think, to real health in the general outlook. Even more important, new groups continue to form and record: Leo Nestor's American Repertory Singers in Washington, D.C., Paul Hillier's His Majestie's Clerkes in Chicago (of all places), and Robert Ross' Voces Novae et Antiquae in Philadelphia.

The university groups get what amounts to subsidy. In the professional groups, not only is nobody getting rich, but most of the musicians must moonlight to make ends meet. Think about how much money a professional chorus of 20 would have to generate so that members could make a living decent enough to allow them to devote themselves full-time. In most of Europe, of course, particularly in Scandinavia and the Baltic, state-owned radio maintains crack choirs, so it really shouldn't surprise anybody that the Danish Radio Chorus is one of the best in the world. The miracle is that the Dale Warland Singers work at that level. The United States does produce wonderful choirs, but eventually lack of money kills them, and they disappear.

Still, the repertory exerts a powerful attraction on singers, many of whom consider ensemble singing the vocal equivalent of instrumental chamber music – one of the best things a performer can do, because it challenges musicianship in ways Lieder and opera singing do not. Consider the simple unison. One singer has a fairly large "fudge factor" to work with. The audience will accept a wide variation in pitch. I once heard Robert Merrill sing an entire act of Rigoletto slightly flat, and I didn't really care – voice and orchestra are normally distinct in the mind's ear. We don't expect them to blend and indeed revel in the difference. Furthermore, it was glorious singing. The moment more than one voice enters the picture, the range of acceptable pitch variation contracts dramatically. In a cappella singing, of course, the singers are the whole show and the color contrast among voices is less than that among orchestral instruments. In an unaligned choral unison, the pitch "buzzes" disconcertingly. Furthermore, not only must singers align themselves with their own section, but with all other sections as well. I've heard choirs with great sectional intonation, which nevertheless were out of tune among the sections. These are just some of the problems of unison. There are more, but since you've probably fallen asleep, I'll move right along to the CD itself.

Robert Ross knows the music that builds choirs – mainly chant and the choral monuments of the Renaissance. Something like the Bach or Brahms motets presuppose a certain technical foundation, available mainly in this earlier work. In general, the group is a fine one, if not yet quite professional caliber, with the tenors (almost always problematic in community groups) vocally the weakest. Yet, between its first CD (featuring music by Randall Thompson, Arkay AR6110) and this one, the choir shows amazing improvement. One notes with pleasure the very first track, Hildegard von Bingen's monodic "De Spiritu Sancto," where the women achieve a fine unison. The males do less well in the "Ave maris stella" plainchant. Intonation problems give them a muddier tone, with the basses tending to hit under pitch.

These problems are exacerbated in the opening to Josquin's "Ave maris stella" motet, where the composer poses a cruel test of the choir's ability to match tones. The singers get off to a shaky start but manage to pull themselves together well enough to manage even some crisp melismata (several relatively quick notes sung on a held syllable). By the middle of the piece, I found myself in the middle of a vibrant performance.

The choir continues at peak form in the Dufay. In fact, my only quibble concerns the underpowered tenors, who nevertheless do well with what they have. Attacks are clean, and rhythms sharp.

To me, the highlight of the CD comes with Victoria's "Missa pro defunctis" (not to be confused with that composer's "Officium defunctorum"). The assignment of the incipits to a particular tenor at first startled me, since this guy's tone is more nasal than a krummhorn. Still, it doesn't detract significantly from the performance, and I got used to it. Ross certainly knows how to shape these pieces, while conveying their architecture. So often performers, even the historically-correct ones, press this music out as an undifferentiated wad. The late Renaissance – of which Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, and (at the end) Monteverdi were all a part – treated religious music as drama. Just think of the religious works of Michelangelo and El Greco roughly contemporary. Victoria's music is built from strong contrasts – musical (full choir vs. two voices, dense counterpoint vs. homophony) and emotional (light and dark, agonized and consoling, with a large dollop of intense, passionate self-reflection thrown in – the composer actually knew St. Teresa of Avila). Above all, performers must keep the music moving. Ross and his singers are at their best here, picking up their emotional cues from the texts. From this standpoint, it is one of the most insightful accounts of Victoria's music I've heard and recalls George Malcolm's magisterial performance of the responsories for the Tenebrae.

The other pieces are all well-handled. Duruflé's gorgeous Four Motets are so beautifully composed, from a choral singer's view, that they're almost bullet-proof. I tend to prefer the sound of boy trebles with this piece and I wish the choir were softer in the opening "Ubi caritas." Messiaen's "O sacrum convivium" usually comes over as lush, due to its rather fulsome chords. Here, the choir comes across as elegant, like cool jazz or a cutout by Matisse. It strikes me as a very "French" reading of the piece.

An astonishing inventor of choral effects, Benjamin Britten seemed to take a perverse delight in writing easy choral music which sounds hard and hard choral music that sounds easy. The relatively little-known "Hymn to St. Peter" includes a killer scherzo on what sounds like a trivial theme in two parts and yet poses hellish rhythmic and intonation problems (he sadistically begins the voices in the high part of their range, rather than allowing them to prepare and build). It's like asking a weight lifter to start with the piano, thank you. The early "Hymn to the Virgin" is a modal chorale, split among two alternating choirs, one large, the other one to a part. Here, the trade-offs pose the difficulty. The tendency is for choirs to enter late and consequently drag the tempo. Furthermore, there's the old problem of matching pitches and chords between the two groups. The singers' entrances generally hit the rhythmic button and their pitch is the best on the CD.

Ross himself, as it turns out, is a rather neat composer, with a gift for memorable, direct communication. "Antiphon to the Holy Spirit" effectively draws on Renaissance as well as modern techniques. However, I wish he had served his own music better, since the choir turns in their weakest performance of the set. The voices sound fatigued and short of breath.

Nevertheless, a very nice program.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz