GMCD 7272 – Songs of the Soul

The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus, Philip Barnes – Artistic Director

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Choir & Organ-05-06-2005

There is a gripping Sound an track one in the first of four settings by Carlos Surinach of words by St John of the Cross. Other composers featured are Victoria, Alan Ridout and living composers Sasha Manning, Clare Maclean, Geoffrey Manning and Carl Rütti. The recording is `up-close’ and yet makes good use of the ample acoustic of St Margaret of Scotland Church, St Louis, giving a very clear reading of the open and vital sound of this excellent choir.

MusicWeb Wednesday February 08 06

One of the finest choral recordings I’ve ever heard — brilliant singing effectively programmed and nicely recorded. …

This is not only an excellent program with a sensible alternation between older and newer music but one of the best quality choir recordings I’ve ever heard both in performance and recording. Having been a member of a chorus and having listened to our own concert recordings, I know how difficult it is to put together a program with a varied sound and high quality. That being said, although Surinach’s canciones are separate pieces, I would have preferred to see them grouped together on the disk rather than intermixed with the other pieces. True, with a programmable CD player, we can hear them in any order desired, but that takes extra effort. And for those who prefer a mixed-up program, there is always the “randomize” button.

St. John of the Cross was from Avila, Spain, and wrote these poems in about 1577 while imprisoned in Toledo by the Church which would canonize him in 1726. The style of the poetry is almost hysterical in its hallucinatory religious imagery suggesting that the poet was near starvation and in despair of his life. He remained devout nonetheless.

Surinach at his best is a superb composer. These “Songs of the Soul” are among his better works, and justifiably the album is named after them. His skill as a conductor was shown in the first recording, on MGM label, of Hovhaness’s St. Vartan Symphony (No. 9), still the best recording of the work ever made – sound as well as performance. Surinach, like Turina, studied in Germany. He eventually emigrated to the U.S. but remained capable of brilliant idiomatic writing in the Spanish style, as here. He has composed a wide range of music in many styles, including a frenetic and satirical Piano Concerto.

The modern pieces tend to make excessive use of seventh, ninth, etcetera, chords. Bach and Buxtehude used such chords, but much more sparingly. Victoria and the other Renaissance composers used them more sparingly still, which I think is closer to ideal.

After the Surinach, the best pieces on the disk are the Maclean and the Rütti, both of which achieve marvelous effects with broken rhythms and polytonal phrases, and both of which are fiendishly difficult to sing. Only the most skilled groups would dare attempt them. The Maclean piece sets part of the same text as the fourth of the Surinach Canciones.

The choir was founded in 1956 by Ronald Arnatt, then recently arrived from England. The current director, Philip Barnes, was also educated in England and sang in many British cathedral choirs. While I am aware that choruses often mispronounce the words they sing for the sake of optimum vocal tone, in the finale of this disk with the chorus chanting over and over “aunque es de noche” what they are actually saying is “onk wayz day no chay,” with broad, fully glided American vowels, enough to disturb the peace of my Spanish teacher’s eternal rest. Although they respected Victoria’s clear Latin vowels while singing with hushed reverence, apparently when they sing loud they automatically go into “Broadway” American musical mode. Surely singers as good as these could have done a little better than that.
Paul Shoemaker