GMCD 7267 – Deep Purple
Vasari Singers, Jeremy Backhouse – conductor
Ipswich Arts Association October 2007
There are many of our local singing groups vuho haue benefited from collections of partsongs like Oxford University Press`s In The Mood, or Encores for Choirs (volumes 1 and 2). When a CD comes along that introduces some new arrangements for SATB, I guess that there should be many Choral directors grabbing it. I know I do. The Vasari Singers are one of this country`s top mixed chamber choirs, and conducted by Jeremy Backhouse they perform 23 songs and ballads under the title of Deep Purple. Most of the arrangements are close harmony so that does pose some challenges for the less able choir, but songs like Henry Mancini’s Moon River in the arrangement by Clay Warnick should hold no terrors. Long ago and far away, In a mist, and Deep Purple grace this delightful album.
Essex Chronicle – 19 November 2004
Risky world of musical theatre
Classical Sounds with Chris GreenThe singing on a new Guild release by the Vasari Singers is highly commendable, but the recording sounds two-dimensional and, somehow, the collection of 23, nay of which like Lullaby of Birdland, are standards that never engaged me.
It lacked that swing that is so difficult to achieve – I know because I am conducting some of these pieces like John Rutter’s Birthday Madrigals this coming Saturday.
Ward Swingle’s name features prominently in the line-up as composer and arranger, and for any enterprising chamber choir, this collection should suggest new material and provide a suitable benchmark, except that I just whished it went with more of a swing
The Organ November 03
This selection of close harmony arrangements offers several well-known items by composers as diverse as Kern, Gershwin and Mancini, but also includes some newer works, including a Vasari commission from Bob Chilcott called Dances in the streets and Birthday Madrigals by John Rutter. The recording is very close as one might expect for this repertoire, and though this makes for a vivid and fresh sound, it does highlight some inconsistencies in tuning and blend with some breathy tone apparent, parlicularly in the tenor and soprano parts. That said, it doesn’t detract at all from the overall spirit of the recording, which is rather jolly – even eliciting an occasional smile on my part. Not quite up to the usual standard from this group (the recent Dupre discs have been superb), but a worthwhile departure nonetheless and I would imagine one or two may end up with this in a Christmas stocking?
MusicWeb Saturday November 15 03
Robert Hugill has also listened to this disc
John Rutter wrote his well known setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ (also featured on this disc in a setting by Ward Swingle) in 1975 since when it has become deservedly well known. Its pairing of Shakespearean text with a catchy, jazz-based tune is proving both popular and effective. In 1995, to celebrate the jazz pianist, George Shearing’s 75th birthday, Rutter wrote four more pieces to create the five movement, ‘Birthday Madrigals’ suite. Movements 3 (setting Marlowe and Raleigh) and 5 (setting Shakespeare and Peele) are in the same jazzy vein, using bass and piano. Unfortunately, the two new movements have the feeling of history repeating itself, and though pleasant and effective, do not add anything to the original movement. Movements 2 and 4 are unaccompanied and rather a surprise, eschewing the jazz-like rhythms for a more contemporary, serious feel firmly in the English part-song tradition. These two movements were rather effective and had fewer of Rutter’s signatures; I would have been more than content with these two on their own.
Conductors find this kind of choral music useful to programme as a lighter item at the end of a concert. This is music which is well written for voices and is enjoyable to sing. But it can be tricky and when singing this repertoire I have occasionally found that the music takes more rehearsal than it really deserves. And I always have a sneaking suspicion that music of this genre is in danger of being more fun to sing than to listen to. If sung at all, it must be sung very well. And here the pieces are sung very well indeed by the Vasari Singers.
One other piece stands out in the programme, Bob Chilcott’s ‘Dances in the street’ setting two of Verlaine’s poems. Like Rutter, he takes popular elements to create distinctive and effective items.
The remainder of the programme is in roughly the same jazzy/Broadway type category. This is a genre which I think of as piano bar jazz, an area where it is tempting for classically based artists to stray into with mixed success. But such artists as Richard Rodney Bennett, Marian Montgomery, Cleo Laine and even Elly Ameling (I have a fond regard for her late, crossover album ‘Sentimental me’) have had great success. It is to Rutter’s credit that he takes elements from this genre to create popular and effective pieces, again making it all seem easy. But in the jazzy movements of ‘Birthday Madrigals’ the combination of classic texts and jazzy rhythms made me wonder whether this wasn’t all slightly second best, making music accessible to choirs when it has been better done by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine in Dankworth’s ‘Word Songs’.
When it comes to the arrangements on this disc, this issue of whether the pieces stand up on their own or whether we must simply accept them as a way of making this type becomes a serious one. It is quite hard for a classically trained choir to stray into this genre. There is the constant tug between flexibility and unanimity. The rhythms don’t get the laid back feel that they deserve when there are four of you on a line endeavouring to sing with unanimity. When listening to most of the arrangements on the disc, my thoughts were mainly that the performances were well done, if a little stiff at times. But I am not sure I wanted to listen to a whole album. There are thirteen arrangements on this album and some of the original items, like Grayston Ives’ ‘Calico Pie’ sound just like the arrangements. These are all, pleasant, sing-along encore items, but have no distinctive voice beyond making that particular song available to the choir and it rather makes for an indigestible disc. Carter’s arrangements in particular have a tendency to sound as if they have strayed off the soundtrack of a Walt Disney cartoon and I really do not want to hear the soprano solo line in ‘Summertime’ sung by the whole soprano section of a choir, no matter how well they sing it.
It must be said, though, that Ward Swingle’s arrangements are in an entirely different class. Swingle’s is a very distinctive voice which comes over, even though the pieces are being sung by a choir rather than a small group of amplified singers. In ‘All the Things you Are’, the opening melody responds well to Swingle’s treatment and the choir sing this beautifully. But when it comes to the scat singing, the texture can get a little heavy. Generally the Vasari Singers respond to the challenge very well, but there are moments in most of the Swingle arrangements where the trickiness of the part writing prevents the choir from providing the effortless smoothness and complete accuracy that the arrangements really require.
This probably all sounds a little unnecessarily harsh. This is a well sung disc and some thought has gone in to the programme. I particularly like the involvement of Ward Swingle, but I did wonder whether the arrangements could not have been varied a little more by something like Manhattan Transfer’s material. Apart from Swingle’s own, not enough of the arrangements are distinctive enough to stand on their own, they feel too much like the producers padding the disc. Couldn’t the Vasari Singers have commissioned someone to write one medley and then have devoted the remaining CD to some more interesting repertoire exploring other composers that like to dip a toe into the tricky world of piano-bar jazz.
Chris Green, Essex Chronicle, 14. October 2005
IN A fortnight’s time I will be in Paris with 60 singers drawn form my Ipswich-based Trianon Music Group, the Anglia Singers in Chelmsford and Trianon’s Dutch partner choir, L’Esperance from near Rotterdam.
Three concerts in as many days in places like Chartres Cathedral will be a great experience, so this week’s selection of new CDs is by way of limbering up musically for that event and where better to start than with one of my favourite French choral works by Maurice Durufle (1902-1986). His Requiem of 1947 has always made a fitting complementary work to that by Faure, and whether in the organ or orchestral versions it makes an impact.
A new Chandos recording by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge conducted by Richard Marlow is polished and passionate, and acts as the major work on an enterprising collection which also featured three other works by the same composer. Mark Williams is the excellent present organist in the accompanied works, and the recording made at the college has splendid presence (Chandos CHAN 10357).
I would have loved it if my choirs could have tackled some music by Francis Poulenc to sing in France, but limited rehearsal time prevents that. There is an unfolding appeal to his sacred music, but it is tricky for choirs, and therefore I welcome the opportunity to be reminded of the shorter choral pieces performed by the Joyful Company of Singers directed by Peter Broadbent (ASV, DCA 1067).
From the earliest Sept Chansons (1936) through to the Four Motets for the Time of Noel (1952), that bitter-sweet quality of Poulenc’s writing emerges with distinct clarity and conviction.
Cathedral Music is the simple title of a reissue from Hyperion (Hyperion CDH55009) in which Donald Hunt conducts the Choir of Worcester Cathedral and The Donald Hunt Singers.
Elgar has to be here and his anthem Great Is The Lord completes the programme that also features five works by Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995).
There is a great strength in his music from the Te Deum laudamus that opens this CD to the anthem, They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships. Works by Herbert Howells and Gerald Finzi make this 1983-8 collection an object lesson to anyone who revels in the delights of music composed for the Anglican Church.
Choral Masterpieces is the apt title for a reissue from Telarc in which the late choral director, Robert Shaw directs the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in 15 excerpts from works such as Bach’s B minor Mass and Mendelssohn’s Elijah to the Sanctus from Durufle’s Requiem (Telarc CD-80119). It is not often the case that I like these kinds of collections, but this is a reminder of the wonders of choral singing
So to something altogether different with which to finish and from the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse comes a selection of contemporary compositions or arrangements. Deep Purple includes some of John Rutter’s light secular compositions as well as evergreens such as George Gershwin’s Love Is Here To Stay.
Music Web Monday October 13 03
You’ll notice that a number of the arrangements above, plus one original item, are by Ward Swingle. We’re told that he came to work with the Vasari Singers before this CD was made, presumably to help them ‘swing’ stylishly in this music, most of which is jazz-inspired. Another obvious, and perhaps superficial, sign of his guidance is the use of appropriately Americanised pronunciation. For example, we have a ‘nidingale’ singing in Berkeley Square, and we’re ‘crassing’ Moon River in style. Put this way, it sounds as if it would be affected, but in fact comes over as perfectly natural. (Isn’t it odd, by the way, that our choirs have to work at authentic American diction, while our pop singers are mostly unable to resist adopting a cod transatlantic accent for their offerings?).
Swingle’s work has not been in vain, for the Singers turn in delightfully stylish interpretations of these numbers, many of which are classics in their own right. It helps that the arrangements, many of which are a capella, are superb, and the choir’s sense of enjoyment comes over strongly. The programme is that much more enjoyable for including a number of items by modern English composers, the first of which are the delightful Birthday Madrigals by John Rutter. This commences with a setting of Shakespeare’s It was a lover and his lass – irresistible, and supported by a jazz trio of piano bass and drums. Later on, we have the exciting Dances in the Streets of Bob Chilcott. Thoughtful programme planning here, for these two pieces, entitled Soho and Paddington follow on with geographical logic from A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
The general standard of this group is very high, with diction, ensemble and rhythmic discipline all of splendid quality. Tone and blend are not quite so outstanding, partly because the men’s voices are not as good as those of the women, and partly because there are one or two sopranos whose voices protrude ever so slightly from the texture in long-held notes from time to time. Intonation (i.e. tuning) is mostly superb, but sopranos are sometimes just under the note when singing in the upper-middle of the stave. This is never bad enough to be really distracting, but it’s something their excellent conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, will want to keep working on.
It’s things like this, together with the variable quality of the solos from the choir (some of which are terrific, others undistinguished), which stops the disc being of top-notch quality. However, it is the sort of CD which provides terrific publicity for the choir, and will sell like hot cakes at their concerts. Personally, I’m just looking forward to an opportunity to hear them ‘live’!