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Hauntingly Beautiful

Christmas music from
Chicago a cappella -
reviewed by

'... I would have liked a little more grit ...'

Christmas A Cappella. Songs from Around the World. Chicago A Cappella. © 2008 Cedille Records

Chicago a cappella is a nine person professional vocal ensemble based in Chicago, with a repertoire ranging from early music to contemporary. On this disc they perform eighteen items with Christmas based texts and themes, the majority of the pieces written or arranged within the last twenty years. Many of the composers and arrangers are American, but the group does manage to cast its net moderately widely. A lot of the pieces are written by composers with whom the group has associations. This means that John Rutter is a notable absentee from the list, but his spirit is present in a number of the arrangements.

They open with Nigerian composer Christian Onyeji's Amuworo ayi otu nwa ('For unto us a child is born') sung in Igbo. Onyeji uses traditional Nigerian forms and textures, giving several refrains and adding solo voices to avoid too much repetitiveness. The group's Igbo is convincing though in English the piece would make a useful encore item for choirs.

Listen -- Christian Onyeji: Amuworo ayi otu nwa
(track 1, 0:00-0:58) © 2008 Cedille Records

Wayland Rogers' What Sweeter Music couldn't be more different: a setting of Robert Herrick written for the ensemble in 1994 and beautifully redolent of the English part-song; melodic, attractive and with slightly austere textures. My only complaint is the composer's changing of some of Herrick's words.

J David Moore's imaginative arrangement of Il est ne, le Divin Enfant starts off traditionally and then works its way towards something more complex by the end. Whereas Eleanor Daley's arrangement of the Huron Carol is simply hauntingly beautiful, though the work is sung in English and not Huron, which is a shame. Steve Pilkington's arrangement of I wonder as I wander is simple but effective; one of the pieces which evokes the spirit of John Rutter.

Stephen Paulus' Splendid Jewel was originally written for a group specialising in early music and Paulus sets the refrain 'Hail, hail devout virgin' to a texture which hints at organum and medieval textures. But ultimately I found the piece not quite spiky enough, and a little more easy on the ear than I would have expected.

Stacy Garrop's Lo Yisa Goy ('Nation shall not lift up sword against nation'), commissioned by the ensemble, mixes Hebrew and English. She uses traditional melodies for the refrain, a Hebrew prayer for peace, but develops them into a richly complex and highly effective piece.

Rosephanye Powell's Who is the baby? mixes spiritual and gospel styles to create a highly effective worship song. There is no reason why white singers should not perform gospel style music but, as here, I find there is a jarring of vocal styles.

For The Christ Child's Lullaby, Gwyneth Walker has taken a haunting Hebridean folksong and created a gentle, folk inflected arrangement. I'm afraid that I thought Jerry Troxell's arrangement of O Come, O Come Emmanuel loses the point of the original and feel that the ensemble should go back to the original Latin plainchant as a starting point. But Ian Humphris's arrangement of Noel nouvelet is totally charming.

Richard Proulx's setting of words by the Venerable Bede is a gem. The piece has an austere beauty and a toughness that is lacking in many of the pieces on the disc.

Listen -- Richard Proulx: Prayer of the Venerable Bede
(track 12, 0:00-0:39) © 2008 Cedille Records

Per Nørgård's En stjerne er sat ('A star is set') setting a Danish text is another little gem and surprisingly approachable. It is an a capella setting of the shepherd's story from the Christmas oratorio.

Listen -- Per Nørgård: En stjerne er sat
(track 13, 0:00-1:05) © 2008 Cedille Records

In the CD booklet, the influence of Rachmaninoff and Poulenc on Carol Barnett's Hodie is noted. But Poulenc's setting of the same text shows a wit and economy which is rather lacking from Barnett's more extended, plodding setting. Enrico Oweggi's Nyathi Onyuol ('A Child is born') is a spiritual in the Luo language from West Kenya. The piece is gentle and homophonic. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it might be considered the language it is sung in, or maybe there are just too many gently attractive pieces on this disc.

Joshua Jacobson's version of Chaim Parchi's Aleih Neiri ('Rise up') is a discreet arrangement of what proves to be a lovely melody for Chanukah which has been recorded by Parchi himself.

As for James Clemens' Jingle a cappella, this is the sort of encore item I prefer to forget.

Howard Helvey sets the medieval text 'O Lux Beatissima' to luxuriant chords which evoke Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. A wonderful way to complete the recital.

Listen -- Howard Helvey: O Lux Beatissima
(track 18, 0:00-1:05) © 2008 Cedille Records

This is an impressive disc, with a programme which manages to include a number of out of the way items. The ensemble's performances are highly professional and they bring out the variety of styles and differences in genre between the pieces rather than forcing them into a homogenised style. Only occasionally did I detect hints of strain, usually in pieces which would have benefited from a larger group of voices.

Though I enjoyed the disc, frankly I would have liked a little more grit in the mix. There were one or two too many pleasantly Romantic arrangements. A couple of pieces from the spikier end of the spectrum would have been welcome.

Copyright © 2 December 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK





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