Heaven to Earth

0 of 5 stars

Agnus Dei
Requiem – Requiem aeternam; Kyrie
Psalm 90
Chichester Psalms – Psalm 23
Pater noster
Vaughan Williams
Five Mystical Songs – Love bade me welcome; The Call
Four Sacred Pieces – Ave Maria
Friede auf Erden, Op.13

Westminster Choir
Joseph Flummerfelt

With Nancianne Parrella (organ), François Suhr (treble), Charles Robert Stephens (baritone) & various singers and instrumentalists

Recorded June 2002, June 2003 and February 2004 in Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, New Jersey

Reviewed by: Michael Allen

Reviewed: October 2004
CD No: AVIE AV 0046
Duration: 62 minutes

Following Avie’s release of “Peace”, this is another choral collection (with some shared repertoire), this time one growing out of a radio broadcast on September 11 2002 “designed”, as the booklet note has it, “to reflect not only the events in America one year earlier, but on the causes of war and unrest extending back into the twentieth century, and on our hopes for a happier future.” Big claims!

Joseph Flummerfelt is one of America’s most respected choral conductors and anything he is involved with is worth taking note of. The longest works, those by Barber, Ives and Schoenberg, are programmed sensibly at the beginning, middle and end. Barber’s Agnus Dei has it origins in the Adagio for Stings (itself taken from Barber’s String Quartet, Op.11). The booklet note makes mention that this a cappella work is given with a small group of strings; the point being, I suppose, that we get all three versions at once! But, the question is begged, why? This performance is perfectly adequate but not true to the composer’s intentions.

It is extraordinary to think that Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 is over 100 years ago – however, as with pretty much all Ives, the present writer finds the whole thing very hollow. One minute ‘Moody and Sankey’, the next cluster-chords and tolling-bells: I’m sure it’s my failing and it is certainly not the choir’s, its members acquit themselves very well – I just wish I could find my way around this composer.

That a work as difficult as Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden can be attempted by what is essentially a student choir is remarkable – even when, as on this occasion, the gamble doesn’t quite come off. The density of the vocal writing, the cruel high-lying lines, and holding the pitch, is a challenge for the most adept of professional choruses. The Westminster Choir struggles on all these accounts – a brave, but ultimately unsettling account.

Verdi’s setting of the Ave Maria, also hardly a walkover, is much more successful – the ‘scala enigmatica’ remaining just that rather than a ‘scala completely unrecognisable’ as can be often the case. The closing bars are beautifully done.

As for the other shorter pieces, I’m not sure how well the Bernstein setting of “The Lord is my Shepherd” works on its own rather than as part of Chichester Psalms, engagingly sung as it is by treble François Suhr once past singing slightly under the note for the first few bars. In the middle section, a setting of “Why do the nations rage?”, tenors and basses spit out the text for all they are worth. The Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams and Duruflé pieces are all affectingly done and conclude a mostly well-sung recital, one for the most part unchanging in terms of tempo.

Although the recording is very atmospheric and well balanced, and the numerous instrumentalists and vocal soloists are all excellent, more variety of music would have been welcome. Heaven might well be all sweetness, light and comfort – but surely Earth has other ingredients too!

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