Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Masterpieces of British choral music

I first came across Marcus Creed’s SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart when they released an outstanding 2011 CD of choral works by Heitor Villa-Lobos. It’s part of an impressive series of recordings of music from around the world in uniform editions with simple but attractive standard design, published by Haenssler Classics from 2008 until last year’s America album. The latest recording is a joint production of Naxos Deutschland Musik and SWR Media Services, so I presume the Haenssler connection is gone, but this CD is definitely another winner. The programme is well chosen to represent relatively recent British choral composers, from Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976, to two still-living composers and another two only recently passed.

The Alleluia for 13-part a cappella choir by James Macmillan was written for the Oregon Bach Festival to commemorate the 80th birthday of conductor Helmuth Rilling, and it’s fittingly full of Bach references. This is complex music with gorgeous textures, and it shows off the versatility of the Vokalensemble and the beauty of their voices, as well as the excellence of the engineering. This was recorded in the reverberant acoustic of the Christuskirche Ganscheide in Stuttgart, as was the Schuon Hymnen of John Tavener, another piece of great beauty and a mystical vibe written to sacred texts. The rest of the album comes from the more restricted acoustic of the SWR studio. Both Jonathan Harvey’s boisterous How could the soul not take flight and Peter Maxwell Davies’ irreverent Corpus Christi with Cat and Mouse are full of complex sounds that would be lost in a cathedral acoustic. The eight short hymns and carols that make up Britten’s Sacred and Profane, op. 91, are distinguished by their beauty or ingenuity: of vocal line, rhythm or harmony. Creed’s singers have the measure of this music. This is a highly accomplished and beautifully presented programme that compares well with any UK choral recording I’ve heard in this century.

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