Choral music is often looked down upon in classical circles as being the domain of amateurs. Composers frequently exercise caution when writing choral music for fear that an average high-school, collegiate, or community choir will not be capable of performing their works. Only rarely do listeners hear music written specifically for a professional choral ensemble capable of performing complex music.
The vocal ensemble Chanticleer has released an unusual and compelling album of profound musical compositions by a few talented contemporary composers. The idea that English is a difficult language to set to music is quickly dispelled from the opening notes of John Taveners "Village Wedding" -- a haunting and spiritual work uniting traditional sounds of the Orthodox Church and contemporary polyphony. The text flows effortlessly despite the diphthongs that bedevil the English language (like the q-w sound in the word "quick", or the s-p-t sound in "clasped").
Chanticleer sings with impressive accuracy and precision. Attention to pitch and the blend of voices make the harshest dissonances palatable. Whether in two parts or 12, the ensembles collective sound makes all the compositions recorded here fluid; they flow from dissonance to tonality, from counterpoint to chordal, from slow ostinatos to nimble staccatos without calling attention to the process of performing. What is left is the music -- as clear and immediate as it is on the score paper.
The compositions here examine the topic of love from many different points of reference. Interestingly, there are two pairs of husband-and-wife composers whose compositions are performed. Former Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands is represented by four movements from his Canti dAmor, settings of James Joyce poems (why this composition is not given an English title is puzzling). Rands captures the melancholy of Joyces view of distant love with slow tuneful melodies and burbling harmonies. On the other hand, his wife, composer Augusta Read Thomas, uses an anonymous Greek poem to express the physical sensation of love. However, in the short work "The Rub of Love," Thomas ignores the playfulness of the text to concentrate on thick, dissonant harmonies. Her penchant toward tone clusters also distracts the listeners attention away from the Úlan of five short texts in her composition Love Songs.
Composers Zou Long and Chen Yi were classmates and were married in Beijing before moving to the United States within a year of each other in the '80s. Longs piece "Words of the Sun," an English translation of a Chinese text, musically depicts the expansive feeling lovers can bring to one another. Chen Yi, on the other hand, depicts the loneliness of parted lovers with Chinese text and Eastern melodies and harmonies.
To those who are unaccustomed to the sound of an all-male a cappella ensemble, Chanticleer is an acquired taste. The overall sound favors the middle and lower registers since the traditional alto and soprano parts are sung by much weaker falsetto voices. In a traditional mixed choir, the balance of the voices is more equal, but the listeners attention is usually drawn to the higher registers. In order to achieve the perfectly balanced sound of Chanticleer, all voices must exercise the utmost control, and it is this control that defines the sound of the ensemble.
Producer Steve Barnett and engineer Preston Smith at Skywalker Ranch Recording Studio preserve the blend of the group while not obscuring the individual voices by placing the microphones at a discreet distance from the singers. The choice of a concert-hall reverb effect was a good one because it is reminiscent of the favored venues in which Chanticleer often performs. Due to the fine performances and excellent production, this CD comes very close to the vocal magic of Chanticleer in concert.
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