Saint Louis Premieres The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus/Philip Barnes
John Quinn of MusicWeb International
August 17, 2020
I’ve already heard and enjoyed a number of discs by The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus (review ~ review ~ review). Apart from the excellence of the performances per se, one thing about the choir that I’ve consistently admired is their readiness to champion music by composers of our own time. Indeed, they’ve already released two discs devoted entirely to music that the choir has commissioned (review ~ review) and now here’s a third such disc. I presume that most if not all of these pieces are here receiving their first recordings. Clearly, the driving force behind their high performance standards and their enterprising programming is their British Music Director, Philip Barnes. He’s been in post since 1989.
The choir has emphasised their commitment to living composers by working with a succession of composers-in-residence. The first, and to date the longest-serving, is the British composer Sasha Johnson Manning (1998-2006). She was followed by the New Zealander, Clare Maclean (2006-2011), the Ukrainian, Yakov Gubanov (2011-14), and the Australian-American, Melissa Dunphy (2014-18). The latest holder of the post is the Swedish composer, Mårten Jansson (2019-21). Three of these composers are represented on this CD.
Gabriel Jackson’s Felices ter et amplius for double choir (SATB) gets the disc off to a splendid start. It’s a wedding piece and so, appropriately enough, the choir’s music at the beginning and end of the piece sounds like pealing bells. In between, the music is characterised by effervescent textures. In the second half of the piece there’s an ear-catching passage in which a solo soprano and a tenor – presumably representing bride and groom - sing rapturously while the rest of the choir murmur in the background. This is a delightful, happy piece which is here performed with great zest.
Another British composer, Judith Bingham also contributes a piece about the love of husband and wife. In this case, Ceaselessly weaving your name concerns the homecoming of Odysseus to his wife Penelope. The selected text is mainly taken from Homer’s Odyssey but there’s also a passage attributed to Kabir, the 15th century Sufi mystic. Penelope’s thoughts are articulated in gentle, feminine music by the ladies of the choir while the men have narrative passages in a much more robust style. Finally, as the couple are reunited the whole choir sings together. It’s a challenging but rewarding piece.
I liked Clare Maclean’s touching Emily Dickinson setting for double choir, That I did always love. Maclean has been a composer-in-residence with the choir, as has Melissa Dunphy. Her set of four short pieces entitled Remembrance explores the relationship between dance and song. The first two settings are contrasting pieces in lively dance rhythms. There follows a haunting setting of Emily Dickinson’s ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking’. This slow and expressive piece takes the suite off in a different direction. For the final piece, Melissa Dunphy’s choice of words from Psalm 30 (‘Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing’) is adroit; the words bridge nicely from the introspection of Dickinson back to extrovert dancing for the last movement of this attractive Suite.
In the middle of the programme is a short section which reflects the links between Saint Louis and beer – as the notes point out, the city is home to Anheuser Busch. Jon Garrett’s arrangement of Drink to me only with thine eyes is pleasing, if straightforward. The British composer Robert Walker clearly had a lot of fun with his The Ale Songbook, a set of five choral songs with a beery flavour. In the main, these songs are inventive and entertaining – in the setting of Robert Burns; ‘Gude Ale’ a semi chorus is used, uniquely in my experience, to mimic the sound of bagpipes. That said, one movement departs from the jollity of the others. ‘Now do I hear thee weep and groan’ is a setting of words by the so-called ‘tramp poet’, W H Davies (1871-1940). This is by far the longest of the set and its much more reflective tone provides a welcome contrast. The other drink-related piece is It is not for kings, Lemuel by Sasha Johnson Manning. This setting of lines from the Book of Proverbs offers a more serious take on alcohol; the words caution rulers against being diverted from their responsibilities by “the demon drink”. It’s an excellent and thoughtful piece and one that is unusual in its subject matter. By the time this rather beautiful piece was written the composer’s formal association with the choir as its composer-in-residence was some years in the past but she clearly still understood how to get the best out of them.
I liked Jonathan Dove’s The Kerry Christmas Carol. The text concerns the old traditional tale that the Holy Family would return to earth annually on Christmas Eve, seeking lodgings. Dove’s piece is founded on two elements: one is a nice, lively tune that lodges in the memory; the other, is an insistent rhythm that permeates much of the carol.
For me, though, the two outstanding items in this collection are both by the same composer: the Latvian, Ēriks Ešenvalds. There’s a nice story behind On friendship. It was commissioned in honour of a long-serving soprano in the choir by two of her friends. The chosen text is by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) and given the circumstances of the commission it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate set of words. There’s a seemingly ceaseless melodic flow to Ešenvalds’ music and the harmonic language is warm. The piece is a choice example of this composer’s choral music and it makes a touching effect. The other Ešenvalds offering is In the bleak midwinter and, if anything I like this even more. His setting of Christina Rossetti’s celebrated poem is poetic and sensitive. The melodic material is truly memorable and the harmonies are super. The setting sounds entirely effortless. In my opinion it’s fit to rank alongside the classic setting by Harold Darke and it leaves the Holst setting far behind. The first time I played this disc I immediately replayed both of these Ešenvalds pieces. (I also hit ‘replay’ for the Gabriel Jackson piece.)
This stimulating disc of recent high-quality choral pieces leaves me full of admiration for Philip Barnes and The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus on a number of counts. One reason to admire them is the quality of their singing which is excellent throughout this programme. The sound the choir makes is most attractive and the ensemble is highly disciplined. However, I admire them even more for their enterprise in so consistently commissioning composers to write for them. And not only do they commission and perform these pieces; they also have the courage to record them. This is the third CD they’ve issued which has been devoted to works the choir has commissioned. If that’s not a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. As a member of a choir myself, I can imagine the excitement these singers must feel at learning and then bringing to life in performance worthwhile pieces of new music. I only hope that other choirs will take these pieces up.
These recordings were engineered by Daniel Ruder. He and producer Gary Cole have done an excellent job: the recordings are clear and expertly balanced with just the right amount of distance between singers and listener. The booklet notes are by Philip Barnes who writes with first-hand knowledge of all the music. I like too the way that he relates the background to each commission.
In connection with another disc I’ve just reviewed, I recently saw an interview with Sir James MacMillan in which he referred to the amazing rise of choirs of great ability in the last twenty years or so. This, he said, has encouraged composers like him to write much more extensively and ambitiously for choirs. On the evidence I’ve heard on this and other discs, The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus is one of those ensembles that’s been at the forefront of that explosion of top-quality choral singing. They and choirs of their calibre and enterprise have encouraged – and challenged – composers to write pieces of worth for them to sing. Long may that continue.