Choir of the 21st Century

Philip Glass: Another Look at Harmony - Part IV

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It would be something of a stretch to describe this CD as a crossover album, but it does take material that was written for a particular pop-oriented ensemble sound and transfer it to a subtly different classical ensemble. Glass wrote Part Four of Another Look at Harmony for the vocalists of the Philip Glass Ensemble and electric organ, and here it's performed by the British Choir of the 21st Century, a much larger group, accompanied by a traditional pipe organ. Conductor Howard Williams handles the challenge of his choir singing nearly continuously for an hour by staggering the voices so the entire ensemble isn't singing together (except, perhaps, at the work's climax). The sound is seamless and the listener is never aware of the constitution of the sound changing. Even so, if only 16 of the 32 members are singing at any given time, it's still a considerably more substantial group than Glass' ensemble and the sound is consistently fuller. Williams does a good job keeping the voices from sounding overly refined; they have the unmannered straightforwardness of Glass' group. Because there are more of them, though, the sound is more homogenous than Glass', and when there is as much repetition as there is here, the textural variety of a small group of recognizably individual voices is a good thing. The drawback of this large a group of voices trained to focus on choral blend is that the lack of variety can be wearing. Glass was writing this piece about the same time as he was working on Einstein on the Beach, so the listener familiar with Einstein will have a pretty good idea of the kind of vocal writing here. As is often the case with Glass' longer works, patience pays off, and although there are some longeurs in the middle, as in Einstein, the cumulative power of the ending is overwhelming and you just don't ever want it to stop. Here the fullness of the choral sound is absolutely appropriate and wonderfully engaging. The volume and tonal colors available to the pipe organ, played by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, make a persuasive case for its use. While this presentation is something of a departure from the composer's original intent, it's largely successful as an alternate interpretation of the piece. Somm's sound is clean and atmospheric.

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