The fact that all of the composers featured on this recording have some connection to Canada—born there, grew up there, went to school there, currently live there, etc—is the sort of programming concept that marketers love but that choir directors know succeeds only on the basis of the quality and compatibility of the music. No need to worry here; Noel Edison has chosen 12 first-rate works, whose creators—mostly authentically Canadian, by the way—know not only how to write for voices, but who also (mostly) know how to find fresh and interesting contexts even for the most familiar texts.
Being “well-known” as a composer is relative and has nothing to do with how capable or skilled or imaginative you are. Yes, the worksRead more contributed by the best-known names on this program—Ruth Watson Henderson’s magnificent Missa brevis (which should be in every serious choir’s repertoire), Imant Raminsh’s lyrical and lovely Psalm 23, and Stephen Chatman’s moving Remember—not surprisingly are among the disc’s musically strongest and most affecting; however, the lesser-known Peter Tiefenbach’s Nunc dimittis (from a commission for the Elora Festival Singers in 2005), Timothy Corlis’ To See the Cherry Hung With Snow, Paul Halley’s Bring Us, O Lord God, and Mark Sirett’s Bless the Lord for the Good Land are equally compelling, memorable—and cry out to choir directors: “Perform me, please!” The only problem is that in at least one significant case—the gorgeous Tiefenbach piece—it’s apparently not available in published form. (This is true of three other works on the program as well.)
For a regular listener this is not a big deal, but for the many choral directors who will listen to a recording like this, their ears open for first-rate repertoire, it’s really frustrating. (It would be like Classicstoday.com giving glowing reviews to recordings no one could buy.) Okay, there’s no rule that says anything performed on a recording must be published, but… This same thing does happen frequently with early music, the performing editions having been produced by the director or a member of the choir from ancient manuscripts—but we expect that it shouldn’t happen with modern works, given the ease of producing copies digitally. To the recording producers’ credit (and I like to think due partly to my relentless “urging” over the years) we do get a list of publishers where applicable.
I have already heaped praise on the accomplishments of the Elora Festival Singers and director Edison for several of their releases over the past few years (see reviews), and (full disclosure) for the last several summers I’ve made a point of traveling to Elora, Ontario to indulge in whatever this remarkable ensemble is up to. Why? Because it’s among the world’s finest choirs and the Elora Festival, a month-long event in which the choir is a major participant, is without question a summer highlight, especially for a choral music fan.
Henderson’s Missa brevis, while not an easy undertaking for most choirs, is inherently, genetically choral in conception and confidently expert in execution—comparable to a similar work by Britten, aware of language and the process of choral composition engineering—a consummate combination of beauty and emotional power that ultimately, joyously affirms anyone’s love of choral music and singing. Paul Halley accomplishes as much in his work for choir and organ, Bring Us, O Lord God, a compelling juxtaposing of texts by John Donne and Isaac Watts. In the latter half of the six-minute piece Halley masterfully incorporates a hymn tune into the mix, set to what turns out to be the final stanza of a Watts verse—but what hymn tune? Nowhere does the composer (nor do the liner notes) give credit to the source of this powerful melody. And it’s not a melody that’s found just anywhere, in just any hymn-book (I looked in at least two dozen). But it’s one that imposes itself on the soul in the fashion of a vibrant late-Christian anthem—and it turns out to be one of those imposing, anonymous tunes—Resignation—from the Southern Harmony, one that was set to Watts’ beautiful paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm. I for one would have loved a proper acknowledgment of the source, one so profoundly, uncompromisingly displayed.
And speaking of psalms: it may be just me, but in Raminsh’s setting of the 23rd, I distinctly detect a not-so-subtle thematic reference to Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms (the Psalm 38 “Exaudi orationem meam…”). The figure is so prominent that it’s hard to believe it’s not an intentional homage, but regardless, the work (hardly a newcomer, from 1985) takes a place among the finer musical incarnations of this revered text. Craig Galbraith’s Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence—another setting of a well-known and beloved text, composed in 2005 for the Elora Festival Singers, and unfortunately unpublished—is a disc highlight. For me, the only non-highlight on the program is Marjan Mozetich’s over-worked, texturally challenged Flying Swans, for choir and cello, a too-busy and too-long exercise that’s certainly not terrible, but neither is it likely to grab you the way most of the other works here do.
The production values are predictably high—the recording was made in the prime acoustics of Elora’s Church of St. John the Evangelist (the choir’s home venue), the details attended by the superb team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver. Serious choral music fans will not miss this; for the rest of you, I can only say that you ignore Canadian choral music at your peril.