Classical Music Review: New Releases

Gloriae Dei Cantores - The Lord is My Shepherd (American Psalmody, Vol. III). Conrad Susa: The God of Love My Shepherd Is; Charles Ives: Psalm 100; Ned Rorem: Two Psalms and a Proverb; Alan Hovhaness: Make Haste; Daniel Pinkham: The House of the Lord; Robert Starer: Proverbs for a Son; Samuel Adler: The Twenty-Third Psalm; Darius Milhaud: Cantata from Proverbs; Philip James: By the Waters of Babylon; Bruce Neswick: I Will Set His Dominion in the Sea. Gloriae Dei Cantores; Elizabeth C. Patterson, conductor. David Chalmers, James Jordan, organists. Gloria Dei Cantores GDCD 030 (available from Paraclete Press). 65'55.

For a brief period of time, I worked in a rather run-down secondhand bookstore in Charing Cross Road.  Every three months or so, we'd pack up the entire stock, ship it to our branch in Hay-On-Wye, and shelve a similar set of books coming from God-Knows-Where.  In between times, all we had to do was man the register and fight over the portable radio behind the desk.  It was not a high paying job and I think all of us working there lived in squats, rented accommodation in Central London being far beyond our means.  Mostly we listened to pop music and various derivatives of Jamaican reggae.  Unless Radio 4 was playing choral music.  Then we sat bathed in the music of Handel, Elgar, Howells, Britten, and the other lights of the English choral tradition.  Born and raised in Los Angeles, I was amazed how steeped my co-workers were in this kind of music.  The point of this autobiographical excursion is to illustrate for my American readers how central choral music is to English vernacular culture and how distant it is from our own.  My co-workers had all sung in choirs at school from an early age and even though they'd stopped singing when I knew them, they still listened and enjoyed.  We Americans, coming from a more secular society, are by and large deprived of this background.

Hence the importance of a project like Gloriae Dei Cantores' American Psalmody series.  Drawing on compositions from the past 100 years, these excellently programmed disks are proof that the American choral tradition may be marginal but it is certainly neither meager nor monotonous.  The current disk is an example of the excellence of the entire series.  It combines works by well-known composers such as Charles Ives and Darius Milhaud with pieces by less familiar names such as Conrad Susa and Philip James.  A capella works are mixed with pieces scored for organ accompaniment as well as for more exotic combinations as a string quintet (Rorem); oboe, bass, and guitar (Starer); and oboe, cello, and harp (Milhaud).  Beyond the orchestrations and programming are the strengths of hearing a choir singing in an American idiom.  While an English choir always contains hints of boy singers with their ethereal and somewhat muted upper tones, American choral singing has always been more full-throated and robust, harkening back, perhaps, to a more congregational, less formal style of singing.

While the individual pieces are unified by a deep spirituality and a strong engagement with their texts, the range of their soundscapes is impressive.  Conrad Susa's exquisite setting of a modern translation of the 23rd Psalm is full of chromaticisms but with a homophonic vocal line.  Charles Ives breaks the choir into two sections, one mixed and one all-female, then interweaves them in distinct and distant keys.  Alan Hovhaness evokes the modal lines of Eastern Orthodox chant, while Philip James evokes the the grand tradition of the 19th Century anthem.  Ned Rorem's "Two Psalms and a Proverb," which receives only its second recording here, is perhaps the finest of the disks many discoveries.  The music perfectly matches the texts and the string quintet provides an involving counterpoint to the vocal lines.  The centerpiece of the disk is Robert Starer's "Proverbs for my Son."  The cello and guitar accompaniment impart a secular feeling to the work and the dancing responses of the oboe keep the Polonius-like aphorisms that make up the text from descending into bathos.

Like the other two disks in this series, this is a highly recommended recording.  I would think they would be of special interest for any choral directors looking for contemporary and compelling new repertory.

Tony Gualtieri
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