Outside of successful meetings of conductor and soloist, what rock musicians would call "supergroup" combinations of distinctive talents rarely work well in classical music (and not always in rock, either, for that matter). When two forms of charisma collide, the result may be shards rather than sparks. Here, however, the combination is one of a kind, and absolutely breathtaking. American soprano Barbara Hendricks has spent much of her life in Sweden but grew up in Arkanas and says that the African-American spirituals formed a sort of "continuo" to her musical thinking. Among the many operatic versions of the spirituals, hers have among the most natural phrasing and the most direct emotional commitment; where others made them into towering civil-rights statements, Hendricks made them personal. But what makes this album extraordinary is the nature of Hendricks' interaction with the New Orleans-based Moses Hogan Chorale as the group performs the arrangements of director Hogan, just a few years before his death at age 48 of a brain tumor in 2003. Hogan's arrangements draw on jazz harmonies and demand extreme virtuosity from the singers -- it's not quite as though Take 6 decided to record an album of spirituals, but they're in that general territory. That style could easily have clashed with Hendricks' straightforward interpretations, but in fact the vocal ensemble works as a unit, with Hendricks applying vocal intensity in tandem with the points at which the emotional tenor of the arrangement rises. In slower pieces, like "Steal Away," track 15, the effect is overwhelming, and it's hard to think of another version of the spirituals, among all the hundreds that have been recorded, that approaches these in their overall power. Perhaps this album conveys something of what it was like to hear the first generation of African-American vocal stars perform with choirs trained by William Dawson or one of the other great choir directors of the interwar period -- it is, in any event, essential listening.
Give Me Jesus: Spirituals Review
by James Manheim