American Choir Music

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The program heard on this German release is organized around contemporary American choral music by the likes of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen -- tonal music based on rich harmonic effects but spare in its expressive ethos and not really neo-Romantic in character. These composers have arisen from a nexus of skilled choirs in the United States, largely outside the sphere of academic modernism or urban avant-gardes. They have begun to make an impact in Britain, but, as the booklet for this disc notes, they are almost unknown outside of choral spheres in continental Europe. So this release by the energetic German conductor Nicol Matt and his Amadeus-Chor has something of the flavor of a tour through virgin territory. When a body of music is approached from the outside, stylistic boundaries blur in unusual ways. The Anglophone listener may find that any individual piece on this album has been more convincingly sung elsewhere, but that they have not yet been put together in this sequence. Instead of the Renaissance classics or twentieth century English cathedral works to which American choirs often turn to round out such a program, Matt selects an all-American body of work, looking back to Aaron Copland and Ives, and outward to the sensuous African-American spiritual arrangements of the late choir leader Moses Hogan. Some of the transitions are jarring. It's hard to tell what German composer Uwe Ungerer's arrangement of Bette Midler's "The Rose" contributes to the program (although it's effective enough in itself, neither a simple setting of the tune nor a major departure from it). But others illuminate some indirect sources of the current efflorescence of American choral writing. Copland's youthful Four Motets, with sacred but studiedly non-Christian texts he wrote himself, may not have directly influenced the likes of Whitacre, but they have a direct yet adventurous spirit he would recognize. And Matt did even better to go back to two short Ives choral works: simple, yet defining their own musical world in quick strokes. Neither the Copland nor the Ives pieces are terribly commonly heard, whereas the contemporary pieces have been staples of American choral programming on disc and in concert lately. One can hear more resonant recordings of Hogan's music from his own recordings (the Amadeus-Chor doesn't sing with a German accent, but no one would mistake them for Americans), or of Lauridsen from several British specialist choirs. But the whole program hangs together in a pleasing way, and the SACD engineering (sampled on a good conventional stereo) is equal to the best the singers can come up with. All the original English and Latin texts are translated into German in the booklet

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