The music on this album was originally recorded for France's Erato label in the mid-'90s and was reissued by Warner Classics & Jazz in 2009. The repertoire includes music from colonial America, along with hymns in the same style as it spread south along the Appalachian mountain range in the 19th century and was taught in singing schools. Rural teachers used books with note heads printed in different shapes, and the Southern branch of the music is now known as shape-note hymnody or as "Sacred Harp" singing after the title of its most famous collection. Conductor and annotator Joel Cohen is right that the music was neglected for some time in favor of American religious music with more "correct" European models; it was rediscovered by the folk revivalists in the 1960s, but has rarely been available on recordings in the classical sphere (and still less so outside the U.S.). No doubt this occasioned its reissue. The trouble is that, surprisingly for a pioneer of the historical-performance movement in the U.S., Cohen does not seem to have listened much to the groups that still perform Sacred Harp music today. He calls the music "untutored but vigorous," but the vigor is lost here. Shape-note singers have an instantly recognizable sound. They hold forth at top volume, with very little dynamic variation, and the bellowing, ringing top of the male singers' range, especially, is part of the sound. The open intervals of the music make sense in this context, but not so much in the delicate phrasings of the Schola Cantorum of Boston and the Brown University Chamber Chorus. The earlier music on the album, from the Revolutionary War era, is less uncomfortable, but there is no reason to suppose it wasn't sung in the same way as the Sacred Harp repertory. The use of the term "spirituals" in the title is also a problem; the word has traditionally been used to refer to African-American religious music, and its application to white hymnody has historically been made by white scholars bent on minimizing the originality of African-American spirituals. The best advice for those curious about this music is to seek out one of the "singings" that are held in most major U.S. cities.
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