Over the past century, major choral works have become more regular. Often, they have evolved quite separately from the instrumental world, but they also resemble each other.
This music tends to be tonal, avoiding the extreme dissonance of many modern classical composers, with attractive melodies and interesting texts. It also often draws on old musical traditions. For more information, just click the Contemporary Choral Music to proceed.
There are certain things I have come to expect from a Roxanna Panufnik choral composition: music that realizes the full potential of the human voice; music beautifully crafted with innovative harmonies and voice leading; music with carefully chosen text and, taken in context with the music, often communicating a profound message. The latest offering in this sequence, Love Abide, doesn’t disappoint.
It’s a collection that explores the themes of faith and hope with texts and chants from various traditions. This diversity is reflected in the compositional styles the composer draws upon with almost carefree abandon. For example, snippets of Spanish Sephardic Jewish chant combine with Hebrew psalm tunes in a beautiful and striking synthesis in a performance by Voces8 and Barnaby Smith in the opening work, Love Endures. Similarly, Sufi rhythms fuse with Turkish modes in the choral improvisations of the piece Love is the Master, and earthy tones of Kiku Day’s shakuhachi blend seamlessly with resonant voices in the piece Zen Love Song.
But despite this seemingly eclectic approach, all pieces share a sense of musical integrity and purpose. Panufnik’s music has “the courage of simple integrity,” writes the Wiener Zeitung, and she has a knack for interweaving emotion with elegant harmony.
As a result, the disc has a satisfying balance between light and shade. Somber moments appear, though, not just in the two Mass settings that form the bulk of the CD. The closing work, For the Rest of Our Lives, communicates a nostalgic and reflective character, with mezzo-soprano Heather Shipp providing a richly resonant vibrato. At the same time, a more cautionary tone emerges in a brief passage at the beginning of Love Abide.
This is an excellent addition to the contemporary choral repertoire, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of this fascinating genre. It’s also a wonderful introduction to the works of a composer whose music has been described as having “the power to transform lives and communicate profound, universal truths.”
The acoustic of this church gives a fine ring to the sound without blurring the inner voices. This was especially effective in the choral works, where VOCES8’s voices were crisp and clear. This choir looks on the back of the booklet to have a mere fourteen singers, but they can clearly produce a rich body of sound.
This program’s mixture of sacred and secular started superbly with Jonathan Dove’s setting of Tennyson’s famous poem Ring Out, Wild Bells. It’s a rousing piece destined to become a concert band showpiece. Despite the complex chromatic lines, it was well-contrasted, and the overlapping vocal entries were expertly built up over gently rippling piano figures.
Based on the poem from his choral cycle, The Passing of the Year, Dove’s evocative setting celebrates nature and the cycles of life. It was written in memory of Dove’s sister’s fiance, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the age of just 22. The poem talks about a man who has come to his end and instructs us to “Ring out the old, ring in the new; Ring out the false, ring in the true.”
The second work was a piece by English composer F.
Brahms’ Geistliches Lied, based on intricate canonic writing, was calmly sung, with the voices expertly summoning up a broad range of dynamics. This was followed by a stunning performance of Antonio Lotti’s choral anthem Crucifixus, a masterpiece of eight-voice counterpoint.
Another choral classic, Bach’s motet Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, was given a vivid interpretation, with the upper and lower voices balanced perfectly. The climax was reached with real authority, and the tonal shifts were skilfully navigated.
The choral arias were also outstanding. The singers relished the opportunity to showcase their soloists, the best being Kate Rubsy’s luxuriant harmonies in her arrangement of Underneath the Stars. VOCES8’s encore was Carroll Coates’ luscious setting of London by Night. Though spring is a long way off, and hope and certainty are fragile, things were certainly beginning to look up by the end of this concert.
The eight pieces on this 2012 release — most a cappella, some with piano, and one with violin, cello, and percussion — present an array of emotions that rise and fall in temperature, textural contrast, and activity levels. If that sounds like a lot of work for the ears and the soul, it is, but the Latvian Radio Choir, under Sigvards Klava, rises to the challenge.
This Harmonia Mundi CD begins with the most challenging of Vasks’ choral works, Ziles zina (The Tomtit’s Message). A dazzling virtuoso showcase for mixed voices, it reveals the choir’s superb musicianship and a stunning choral sound that seems undaunted by the composer’s most elaborate demands for extended vocal techniques alternating with sections of piercing tonal purity.
The other major piece on the album is Lonely Angel, a chamber work written in 1985 and dedicated to Olivier Messiaen. While it borrows structure from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, it is far more evocative and poetic, with a gradual descent to the most somber passages and an ultimately joyful resolution. It is a powerful statement that gives the listener a sense of the journey through “evil, delusion and suffering” to a song of Love and peace.
Other highlights include the gentle Silent Songs and rhapsodic Summer for Women’s Voices. The final work, Plainscapes, is a wordless vocalized with string accompaniment that evokes the Latvian plains “as night falls and the stars come out.” The string ensemble Trio Palladio, named for the Italian architect of the 1500s, brings to this music the spirit of Palladio’s precision, capturing the moments of unearthly beauty contrasted by intense worldly difficulties.
All of these works show a range of contemporary choral compositional styles, from the dark minimalism of Arvo Part to the lyrical expressiveness of James MacMillan. Despite its religious roots, the sonic clarity and musical excellence of this Harmonia Mundi release make it a worthwhile addition to the library of any serious choral music lover.
In a remote hilltop chapel accessed via a dairy farm, the Helsinki Chamber Choir gave a thrilling performance of Sampo Haapamaki’s Maailmamaa (2010). Haapamaki, who normally torments his choir with quarter tones, uses hymns, drones, and shouting matches to grab the listener’s throat. And he succeeds.
Though he creates incredibly complex musical worlds out of panting, grunting, and stamping, his music is not difficult to listen to. Fluctuating pedal points bind everything together, and out of extended vocal techniques, tonal colors, and phonemes, he builds clearly defined tensions and processes. Foreign Infantry and On, -ne, -ni are particularly impressive examples.
As always, the Helsinki Chamber Choir interpreted these pieces with such natural flair that the music seemed more like a musical performance than the execution of some special effects. It’s a great sign of the HKK’s talent that they can make such a difficult music sound so easy, even when they’re dealing with composers who are masters at extreme complexity.
In addition, it is important to find a space where the group can practice regularly and freely. This will allow the group to get creative and experiment with new ideas without worrying about noise complaints or getting into trouble with the police. Soundproofing the space is also a good idea, as it will save on energy bills and make it a more enjoyable environment for everyone involved.
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