Site review by Geohominid April 29, 2011
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Vocal Ensemble Cantatrix are a Dutch amateur mixed choir, here conducted by the luxuriously named Geert-Jan van Beijeren en Henegouwen. Cantatrix number about 28 members, and aim to attain professional standards in their concert engagements. This is their first recording. There is no doubt that they are in the upper echelons of European choirs. Their sound is quite distinctive, and rather than the over-drilled tonal homogeneity of some, each section has a distinct character (faithfully revealed by Aliud's pure DSD recording), with bright, vibrant sopranos and some satisfyingly profound basses.
'Contrasts' refers to the wide range of origin, culture and poetic inspiration of the composers on offer, mostly from the C20th, except Elgar. It has to be said that there is not a great variety of musical styles in this programme, which is mostly of slow or moderate paced and very melodic pieces. However, there is a good balance of sacred and secular music, which is mostly presented in composer-led groups.
The disc begins with the now very popular "Totus tuus" by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, whose star arose suddenly a decade or so ago with the recording of his "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (Symphony no. 3). "Totus tuus" was composed in 1997 to celebrate the third visit to Poland of Pope John Paul II. It is a short but ecstatic hymn to the Virgin Mary, patroness of Poland. The simple music is imploring; it rises and falls slowly and is also mostly hushed. Cantatrix take it a little more quickly than usual, but with fervent, expressive phrasing, although their dynamics are rather limited (taking each of Gorecki's many volume indications rather louder than notated).
Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvy (b. 1963) is represented by a group of three pieces, two of them in English. Mäntyjärvy studied English and linguistics, which informs many of his vocal settings. "I Was Glad" (from Psalm 22 in the celebrated King James Bible English) sports a sweet-voiced tenor solo over multiple layers of brightly-toned joy from the chorus, showing the choirs disciplined ensemble. Shakespeare's "Come Away Death", while not so much plumbing the depths of the text in Mäntyjärvy's version, is richly expressive. The most innovative work in the Mäntyjärvy group is his imaginative and atmospheric "Ave Maria". This familiar Latin prayer to the Virgin begins with a deep sustained pedal note from the basses, above which the female voices float a sotto voce muttering of the text (a similar effect was used by Verdi in his Requiem), alternating with a flowing chant version by the male voices.
Coen Vermeeren (b. 1962) has a musical background stemming from his spell as a Dutch choirboy. He does not claim to have a specific style, but instead is inspired by the texts which he sets. "Keanske's Last Song" is written to a text in Frisian which describes the sense of loss when viewing an old and decaying farmstead in that northern region of the Netherlands. Cantatrix clearly appreciate the superb choral writing, which expresses the underlying sadness and nostalgia of the imagined scenes. Note some lovely onomatopoeic church bells supplied by the sopranos.
Danish-born Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) has become the doyen of choral composers in recent years. A mystic in overall approach, his probing, lush yet serene works have become amazingly popular thanks to their emotional effect, which is brought about by simple but powerful textural building and a glorious gift for melodies which linger long in the conciousness. Cantatrix handle the interweaving polyphonic strands very well, especially in the three settings of French verse ("La Rose Compléte", "Dirait-on" and "Sa nuy d'été". These three songs are accompanied by the piano, but we return to a capella for "The Shower", a delightful vignette portraying sunshine after rain.
It may seem odd to add some Elgar works from the C19th to a C20th recipe, but this brief encounter with the roots of modern choral music is useful. Elgar's Late Romantic part-songs are not so much heard these days, but there are many near-masterpieces, and two fine examples are used here; "My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land" and "Go Song of Mine". The former is full of Elgar's vivid dramatic effects in response to his poet Andrew Lang, while the latter has a typically Elgarian tune which surely recalls those in the composers oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius". While Cantatrix give colourful and effective responses to Elgar's music, again their dynamics are somewhat compressed; markings of 'ppp' are taken a couple of notches too loudly.
Eric Whiteacre (b. 1970) nearly rivals Lauridsen as a popular American composer. More than the other composers on this disc, his choral music utilises late C20th techniques such as clusters, aleatoric devices, mixed rhythms and harmonically enriched tonalities. Some of these are displayed in the shimmering brilliance of "Lux atrumque" and the darker "Waternight", whose suspense is suggested by tone clusters and very low bass parts; it does, however, emerge with a radiant conclusion.
The final work is another "Ave Maria" by German-born Franz Biebl (1906-2001) which has an extended text, and uses a number of soloists who introduce chants - often somewhat tentatively and with some pitching issues - against the voice-blocks. Nevertheless, the lush melodic character of the piece is well-transmitted by Cantatrix.
Although captured at 7 sessions over nearly two months (2008) in a small Frisian church, the Aliud engineering has managed to produce a surprisingly good matching of choral perspective and tonal similarity. In the MC track, the discrete and helpful ambience of the church adds to the presence and depth of the choir, which is spread quite widely between the speakers, and with each section clearly located. This is very much a "you are there" recording, adding much to the whole programme.
Although the booklet has biographical information in English, Dutch, French and German, there is precious little information about the music. Texts are also given in the original languages (Latin, English and French), but the Frisian text is translated to English. It would have been very useful to have dates for the compositions and also for the booklet to attribute the authorship of the texts.
While this may be an amateur chorus, with some performance reservations (others may be caught by bat-eared choir directors!), I greatly enjoyed this richly rewarding and attractive programme, and have played it often. It would make an excellent introduction to modern choral music. Recommended.
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