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CLASSICAL  March 2007

CLASSICAL March 2007

Subject:

Instrumental Music for Choir

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 26 Mar 2007 10:12:11 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (121 lines)

Accentus
Transcriptions

*  Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei
*  Gustav Mahler (arr. Pesson): Kein deutscher Himmel (Symphony #5, Adagietto)
*  Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. Nystedt): Immortal Bach (Komm, susser Tod)
*  Frederic Chopin (arr. Krawczyk):
   - Lacrymosa (=C9tude, op. 10/6)
   - Lulajze, Jezuniu (Largo, Sonata, op. 58)
*  Maurice Ravel (arr. Gottwald): Soupir
*  Hugo Wolf (arr. Gottwald):
    - Das verlassene Magdlein
    - Auf ein altes Bild
*  Alban Berg (arr. Gottwald): Die Nachtigall
*  Gustav Mahler (arr. Gottwald): Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
*  Claude Debussy (arr. Gottwald): Les Angelus

Choeur de Chambre Accentus/Laurence Equilbey
Naive V4947 Total time: 52:22

Summary for the Busy Executive: An honest-to-goodness Wow!

For some reason, France has not produced first-rank choral groups with
the same frequency as Britain, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.
Indeed, until recently, only Marcel Couraud's Ensemble Vocale stood
comparison with, say, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir or The Sixteen.  The
original Swingle Singers and Les Double Six, although virtuoso groups,
nevertheless didn't do the classic choral repertoire.  Consequently,
this disc by the Accentus Chamber Choir hit me as a wonderful surprise.
I had not heard of Laurence Equilbey (a woman, apparently; I have no
idea how she came by the moniker "Laurence"), but she has a terrific
choral pedigree, having worked with Sweden's legendary Eric Ericson.
It shows.  French choirs tend to either a thin reediness, suitable for
small pieces, or a heavy, operatic sound, perfect for things like Berlioz
or even the big religious pieces of Messia=EBn and Poulenc, but not so
good for most other choral music.  Accentus has the bracingly clean tone
color of Scandinavian choirs with a slight hint of the opera house when
necessary.

As the album title says, this disc features choral transcriptions
of both instrumental works and songs.  Having done some of this sort
of arranging, I must say that these pieces astounded me.  To go from
instrument to voice, for example, immediately brings up the problem of
range.  One can't happily transcribe pitches.  Instruments can go both
higher and lower than not only one voice, but a choir of voices.  I once
arranged Debussy's "Girl with Flaxen Hair" for choir and had to deal
with either an impossibly high range at the end or a difficult low range
throughout.  I came up with, I must say, an ingenious solution, but I
did have to sweat for it, even after I found the "transposing key." The
Debussy is fairly straightforward.  On the other hand, I've tried arranging
the Villa-Lobos fifth Bachiana for choir.  The restricted range of the
cello ensemble encouraged me, but problems of counterpoint and part-writing
came up that I haven't yet solved.  One could eliminate the counterpoint,
but that radically alters the character of the piece.  It becomes too
much of a cheat. More thought ...  more thought.

Of the five arrangers on the disc - Gerard Pesson, Clytus Gottwald,
Knut Nystedt, Samuel Barber, and Franck Krawczyk - four of them to
some extent derive from Ligeti's choral Lux aeterna of 1966.  It's
most apparent in Nystedt's Immortal Bach, what amounts to a recomposition
of "Komm susser Tod." Here, Nystedt slows everything almost to dead stop
and draws out the dissonances of Bach's chorale harmonization.  This
results in a striking work which seems to shimmer in and out of consonance.
Franck Krawczyk has made a Lacrimosa and a lullaby from Chopin piano
works.  I consider these the least successful of the set, though whether
that stems from the arrangement or my lack of enthusiasm for the originals,
I can't say.  At any rate, nothing in them grabs me.  My dislike of
Barber's Agnus Dei, transcribed from his Adagio for Strings, I've spoken
of many times before.  Essentially, it's much less interesting, much
worse-written for choir, than his original choral music.  The long pedal
notes of the strings don't translate well to the voices.  However, I
find myself in a minority.  The popularity of both the original string
version and of the transcription among top choirs probably ensures that
the Agnus Dei will hang around for a while. I hope it doesn't overshadow
Barber's Reincarnations, Twelfth Night, A Stopwatch and an Ordinance
Map, The Lovers, or The Prayers of Kierkegaard.

Pesson contributes the single most spectacular arrangement, a
transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth.  Even the choice of
text rates mention: fragments from August von Platen on Venice and Italy.
Pesson deliberately courts the atmosphere of Death in Venice - the movie,
not the book.  Somehow he suggests the original orchestral colors and,
more importantly, the orchestral shimmer of that movement.

Everything else falls to Gottwald, who contributes his own Mahler
transcription of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," in every way as
fine as Pesson's.  He also gives us Hugo-Wolf songs, as well as songs
by Berg, Ravel, and Debussy.  Avoiding a "one size fits all" strategy,
his Wolf and Berg fit into the German part-song tradition, while the
Debussy and Ravel have affinities with those composers' orchestral music,
as opposed to their choral writing.  Each Gottwald setting might show
less ambition than the Pesson, but it is nonetheless very finely worked.

As far as the performances go, take everything I say with a pinch
of salt.  I judge Accentus by the highest standards I have because it
meets them.  Nothing is terrible.  Nothing is shoddily done.  This is
all difficult, though beautiful, repertoire.  Intonation goes occasionally
wonky, by maybe two cents, in the Barber, and the chords sound a bit
thick.  As I say, the Chopin does little for me.  However, the Mahler -
both Pesson's and Gottwald's - raptures me out.  The choral mechanics
are so much there, you take them for granted.  What really impresses is
the sense of forward momentum, very difficult for most choirs, which
tend to squat in slow music.  The phrasing and the building of long lines
stand among the most subtle and refined I've heard, even among the great
orchestras.  The tonal stolidity that plagues the Chopin and the Barber
absolutely disappears everywhere else.  We not only get the clarity of
the German songs, but a different kind of clarity - more colorful, if
you like - in the French.

For choral-music lovers, this is a must-have. Accentus even has a second
volume of transcriptions (Naive 5048), which I'll probably review sometime
in the next two years.  Meanwhile, don't wait for me.

Steve Schwartz

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