GMCD 7246 – Voice of Africa

University of Pretoria Camerata, Johann van der Sandt – Conductor, Hannie van Zyl – Piano

To the CD in our Shop

American Record Guide – July/August 2003

We are accustomed to speaking about musical goings – on and traditions in the Eastern and Western hemispheres, but what about the Southern? Other than a few good choirs from New Zealand and Australia, this South African group is the first chorus trained in the European Tradition I’ve heard from south of the equator. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard them – they are one of the 27 fine choirs whose performances were captured in last year’s World Symposium of Choral Music (reviewed below).

As their appearance at that august event suggests, we have here a truly first-rate ensemble. This multi-racial group of around 60 offers a hearty and spirited, yet highly refined sound that is well worth hearing. And we get here a fascinating sampling of the choral work of prominent South African composers, most of them little-known beyond their borders.

After proving that they can handle the European masters with the best – with glowing readings of Mendelssohn’s ‘Psalm 100’, Bruckner’s ‘Os Justi’, and Verdi’s ‘Pater Noster’ – they move on to the music of modern Baltic and Scandinavian masters. Arvo Pärt’s mystical Magnificat and Veljo Tormis’s folk-toned ‘Curse on Iron’, a setting of a rune from the Kalevala, get striking and thoughtful performances. The latter work’s ancient theme resonates strongly in today’s uncertain world, speaking of the likelihood of anything that man creates turning against him, unless it is used with respect and ethical forethought.

The most remarkable work from the Swedish composers represented here is Thomas Jennefelt’s (b 1954) ‘Villarosa Sarialdi’, a piece written without paying any attention to specific words. He crafted a work of pure music, by turns flowing and dramatic, then inserted his own nonsense text to fit the music. This heavily minimalist work weaves quite a haunting spell. Sven-Erie Johanson, who was one of Sweden’s most prolific 20th Century composers, is represented by his ‘Dilemma’, a simultaneously serene and craggy study in moral extremes, with the women gently singing single “good” words while the men give violent voice to more “evil” vocabulary. Jazz pianist Lars Jansson’s (b 1951) ‘Mothers of Brazil’, offered here in Gunnar Eriksson’s choral arrangement, is a setting of the sacred Salve Regina text, but it is in fact a searing hymn to mothers who have lost children to oppressive political regimes.

The Scandinavian pieces conclude on a truly comic note with the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntjärvi’s ‘Pseudo-Yoik’, poking raucous fun at Yoik, a widely misunderstood form of folk-chant from his country’s Arctic regions (N/D 2002, p 235).

The choir also gets down to the serious business of celebrating influences and voices closer to home, first with the ‘Himne’ of Roelof Temmingh, one of modern South Africa’s most prolific and admired composers. This is a deep and lovely sacred piece (with piano) reflecting the composer’s predilection for music that “glides around in music’s most inspiring domain. the great, carefree world between the old, distant boundaries of tonality and atonality”. But it doesn’t sound very African. Somewhat more idiomatic is ‘l am the Voice of Africa’, a patriotic piece by Niel van der Watt (b 1962) that offers jazzy tunes and echoes of some of the tribal choral traditions of his homeland. There’s also some African-American-inspired material: a spine-tingling arrangement of ‘Deep River’ – and in the gospel classic, ‘Operator’, by William Spevery, the singers jump and jive their way to the collection’s rousing close.

These pieces are mostly unaccompanied, save for one number with piano and a few more with selected percussion or soulful solo saxophone obbligatos. At least two of them were recorded in concert, but I suspect the rest are studio efforts. Notes and texts are fine, and the sound is faultless. In all, this is a delightfully varied and accomplished program that is sure to please any choral buff.